Jacksonville Mayor Lenny Curry led his final budget address July 21 with what would be the first city property tax rate cut in 15 years, part of an overall $1.55 billion spending plan for fiscal year 2022-23.
At a special session of City Council, Curry said growth in the city’s tax base, along with nearly $347 million in reserve funding bolstered by one-time federal pandemic relief money, drove his decision to offer to lower the property tax rate by 1/8-mill.
“Together, we successfully managed uncharted territory due to a global pandemic and challenging economic conditions,” Curry said.
“This forced some other city governments to declare financial emergencies. Here in Jacksonville, we not only survived, but we thrived by standing unified for our city’s future.”
That drops the millage, which has remained flat since Curry took office in 2015, from $11.4419 to $11.3169 per every $1,000 of taxable property value.
That means a Jacksonville homeowner with a $200,000 home and a $50,000 state of Florida homestead exemption would pay about $1,697.53.
Because of rising property values, the 1.09% millage rate drop doesn’t mean homeowners will be paying less next year, it just means their bill won’t increase as much as it could have.
Capital Improvement Plan
Curry made the health of the city’s reserve and the annual increase in capital improvement spending under his administration a repeating theme of his speech.
The budget is up about 9.9%, or $140 million, from $1.41 billion in FY 2021-22.
Curry’s proposed Capital Improvement Plan for FY 2022-23 is about $500 million for 161 projects.
That’s up 1.1% from $494.7 million in 2021-22.
If the budget is approved unchanged, the city will spend $10 million toward resiliency and climate change-related projects in the next year; $86 million for drainage improvements; and $28.3 million for river bulkhead improvements.
Curry also highlighted $26.5 million for road resurfacing and $108 million for city parks.
The mayor wants Council to appropriate the Downtown Investment Authority’s full $25 million funding request for a signature park at the former Jacksonville Landing site, now Riverfront Plaza, in 2022-23.
That is in addition to $15 million for improvements to Metropolitan Park and $7.2 million to relocate the Museum of Science& History from the Southbank to the Shipyards on the Northbank.
The plan includes $100 million for Downtown revitalization and infrastructure projects with landscaping, lighting, one-way street conversions and Downtown Riverwalk improvements.
“The St. Johns River is one of our key Downtown assets and developing the area around it, with the addition of a museum and cultural district, Riverfront Plaza and continued world-class entertainment, will be a major driver of growth and development,” Curry said.
Curry called the spending a demonstration of his “dedication to a series of riverfront parks located in Downtown Jacksonville, and connected by safe, public walking paths.”
“I expect the next mayor and the next Council will be cutting a lot of ribbons over the next eight years that we laid the groundwork for and I’ll be happy to see that,” Curry said in a news conference after the speech.”
The budget allocates a record $545.27 million to the Jacksonville Sheriff’s Office, a $37.5 million, a 7.4% increase from $507.7 million last year.
City Chief Administrative Officer Brian Hughes told the Council after Curry’s speech that a portion of the increase is for employee wages.
Curry said the money also will be spent on public safety technology, resources and prevention and intervention services.
“Make no mistake, the ability to have cops on the street is the most effective tool for our neighborhoods to be safe,” Curry said.
“That is why I added 224 new positions with the Jacksonville Sheriff’s Office since first taking office.”
Reserves and debt reduction
This is the second consecutive year Curry has proposed nearly a half-billion dollars in capital improvement spending. His first budget had about $71 million in capital spending. Curry’s predecessor, Alvin Brown, had about $20 million in capital projects in his final budget.
Administration officials posted charts in Council Chambers before the speech showing the city’s total outstanding debt has declined from $2.47 billion in 2015 to $1.91 billion today.
Curry attributes that largely to his pension reform plan that deferred the city’s outstanding pension liability.
Voters approved a half-cent sales tax increase in 2016 to fund the pension. That tax has yet to begin. It will start after the Better Jacksonville Plan tax ends, no later than 2030.
The administration estimates the plan will have allowed the city to defer $834 million in contributions by 2023.
The city also has benefited since April 2020 from nearly $329 million in federal coronavirus pandemic relief money that was distributed to Jacksonville businesses, organizations and residents, as well as helped ease for the pandemic’s impact on city’s general fund.
“Reducing debt helps the city appeal to rating agencies and investors and lowers borrowing costs when we go to the capital markets. Stated simply, having lower payments means more money for other city needs.” Curry said.
According to Hughes, the budget sets aside about $73 million of the additional $171 million the city will receive this year from the federal pandemic American Rescue Plan for the next mayor and Council.
The city has until 2024 to spend the money that can be used broadly for the city budget and city-related entities and services impacted by the pandemic.
“Generally, a good principle, if a downturn comes and there are some … that are concerned about what comes in the next year or two, those reserves and federal set-asides are there for that reason,” Hughes told Council.
Hughes said July 7 that rising property values would give the city about $90 million more in tax revenue than in the current fiscal year.
In a news conference, Curry labeled the millage drop a “responsible tax” that still allows the city reserves to grow and prepares his predecessor and next Council to weather a possible recession.
“We really don’t know where this economy is headed, but here’s what we do know. We do know there’s major inflation right now. We do know we’ve seen companies around the country start to lay people off,” Curry said.
“The one thing we can control here is the tax rate and that’s why we’ve cut it this year.”
Curry’s final budget
Curry told new reporters that the level of capital improvement spending would be sustainable past his term, which ends June 2023, if the economy remains strong, but that city reserves would prepare the next mayor and Council for a crisis.
“Eight years ago, we weren’t taking care of our infrastructure. We weren’t focused on resiliency, and flooding, on parks, on children’s programs,” Curry said. “We’re doing all that stuff now.”
Council members will have the final say on Curry’s spending recommendations.
Initial Council reaction to the budget July 21 was praise for the spending priorities and reserve levels.
The Council Finance Committee has seven budget hearings from Aug. 11-26 to finalize the document. If approved, it will take effect Oct. 1.
“It’s good to have the glitzy projects and building buildings,” Curry told reporters.
“We’re doing that stuff and the big signature things. But I’m talking to the people of Jacksonville right now. Your parks, your sidewalks, your roads. We are investing in every corner of the city. Finally, this administration.”