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Jax Daily Record Friday, Jul. 11, 201412:00 PM EST

Toughest decisions still to be made before Mayor Alvin Brown presents budget

by: David Chapman

It’s a puzzle, the city’s annual budget.

Revenue and expenses shape the pieces representing departments, priorities, obligations. It’s then the mayor and his staff’s duty to determine how large or small each piece should be — if there’s even a piece needed at all.

Some pieces, like public safety and city salaries, take up more space of the $1 billion puzzle. Others like pension and debt obligations are glued down, making it difficult or nearly impossible to pull up and reshape. The rest often can be molded to fill in the overall picture.

Mayor Alvin Brown will present his final version of that puzzle to City Council on Monday morning. But, until then some key pieces still need to be determined.

The sheriff has requested an additional $8 million to hire officers and community service officers to combat a growing problem. Jacksonville Fire and Rescue could use some new equipment. The library is seeking a $3 million boost for more branch hours and materials.

How much to give the Downtown Investment Authority for the urban core’s development — long a Brown priority — hasn’t been determined.

Those larger issues will be determined over the weekend, said David DeCamp, Brown’s spokesman. That’s when city staffers will be putting in the hours to adjust the sizes of the puzzle.

An extra $19 million expected to come in from rising property values will help. But expenses also have gone up — the almost $10 million more needed for pensions, $5 million for workers’ heart and hypertension claims, $3.5 million more in debt service.

All requests are still on the table, DeCamp said, leading into the weekend’s work.

There are some commitments already slated to be presented. They include a $50,000 commitment for the city’s Office of Ethics, Compliance and Oversight for part-time hours. UF Health will have a $2.5 million boost to its annual contribution, up from the almost $24 million it’s received for years. And there is a goal of bumping Public Service Grant funding up 5 percent from last year.

Overall, the improving economy has helped city budgetmakers this year, DeCamp said.

Departments were told to submit flat budgets, a drastic change from last year’s request for across-the-board cuts. Those cuts resulted in more than $60 million of extraordinary lapses — unaccounted for cuts submitted by the mayor — and heated criticism from council members that Brown’s budget wasn’t delivered balanced and incomplete.

DeCamp said extraordinary lapses won’t be this year’s budget, instead just regular salary lapses that fall in line with other budgets. And unless something happens over the weekend, layoffs aren’t part of the plan.

He credits a budget review committee led by now-council President Clay Yarborough for this year’s process being smoother. Departments were able to be in front of council members to explain their budgets and needs earlier.

When Brown’s version is done, then its council’s turn.

The nine-member Finance Committee will spend many daylong sessions throughout August and September looking over Brown’s puzzle. It’s possible the puzzle could be dumped over, started again.

More than likely, though, council members will just make some pieces larger, smaller, or take them out altogether if it doesn’t fit their priorities.

They won’t know until Monday, after a weekend of work finalizing the puzzle.

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