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Jax Daily Record Thursday, Sep. 4, 201412:00 PM EST

Trading fire stations for vehicles: The choices being made at budget time

by: David Chapman

Fire Chief Marty Senterfitt came to the committee with specific needs.

His department needs a $3 million upgrade to its station alerting system. Almost $19 million in new vehicles. Breathing apparatus that will cost $7 million. And a new Station No. 56, which could be close to $2.8 million if city land is used.

The City Council Finance Committee is determining the city’s needs — and what it can afford.

The group has curbed spending, held the line on new employees and is determining how much — if any — the city can afford to borrow without crippling

future budgets.

It was the latter part that was the subject of a lengthy exercise Wednesday by a subcommittee reviewing the capital improvement plan.

Senterfitt was among department heads who made a pitch. He also offered ways to help.

The city land proposal for the new station trimmed $1 million off the price tag.

The breathing equipment could be financed over a longer period, which would ease annual repayments on borrowing.

And the department received $792,000 in one-time money that could offset other expenses.

If those weren’t enough, he would offer to close three or fire stations to save about $3.4 million. Or, as he put it, some of the 55 children he’d sacrifice to ensure the other critical needs.

Those are the types of decisions the committee is beginning to make, responded council member Lori Boyer.

When Jack Shad, director of public parking, said he wanted to spend $350,000 for the improvements to the Water Street Garage, Boyer was quick on a response.

“Sell me,” she said. “Why?”

Shad said the garage was along a major entryway to Downtown and was the upgrades were part of the agreement when EverBank decided to move Downtown.

The need to “sell” the committee went on over about six hours of painstaking analysis Boyer, chair of the capital improvement plan subcommittee, and her colleagues went through as they reviewed past spending plans.

The clean-up is intended to determine what capital projects once pegged as critical but not yet completed — or in some cases even started — should stay in the city’s plans.

The group has abided by its decision to severely limit borrowing, use one-time money or pull from reserves, all of which Mayor Alvin Brown proposed as part of his budget.

At the outset, the subcommittee learned some disheartening information: even if it didn’t borrow a dime for next year, debt service payment would still rise by about $1.5 million. Those payments cut into general fund spending, which covers city services and employees.

Keeping them level has been a priority, but Boyer said the

committee will have to decide whether it’s worth future budgetary pain to borrow today for projects.

The subcommittee also heard from the Jacksonville Sheriff’s Office, Public Works, Parks, Recreation and Community Development and Jacksonville Public Libraries during the meeting.

Like fire and rescue, the

sheriff’s office and public works capital needs are headlined by vehicle replacements.

The city has about $10 million in cash to spend on vehicles. Once council members divvy that up, whatever is left will be borrowed or corresponding cuts would have to be made.

Sheriff John Rutherford said the only way he could find money was to cut personnel and there was “no way” he would go that route.

The library system had three projects on the capital list, but rather than make cuts an official said the projects could wait.

Boyer said she expected a figure on the cleaned-up past plans and outstanding asks by departments in today or Friday.

The regular budget review continues from 9 a.m.-5 p.m. today followed by another all-day session Friday, with less than a month to go before the city’s fiscal 2014-15 budget must be finalized.

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