Budget includes millions for city infrastructure improvements, money to tear down old Downtown courthouse and City Hall.
Mayor Lenny Curry’s proposed 2017-18 budget includes a major Downtown project — demolition of the old City Hall and Duval County Courthouse along East Bay Street.
His capital improvement plan includes $8 million to demolish the buildings, with another $8 million for the continued remediation of the Liberty Street and the Coastline Drive parking deck near the structures.
“If we are going to attract private dollars Downtown, we must prepare Downtown for private investment,” Curry said Monday as he presented the budget to City Council.
In the past, ideas surfaced for a new convention center on the property as well as a public park or other private investment.
Curry said while there are no plans for the sites, demolishing the structures is more “about demonstrating that we’re action-oriented, that we’re not going to sit around and talk about it.”
“When you have old, dilapidated buildings Downtown, what does that say to private investors? It says the city’s not serious,” he said.
Curry’s proposed budget for the next fiscal year indicates a more proactive approach to economic development for Downtown and other parts of the city.
While the proposed $1.273 billion budget gives substantial weight to improving public safety by adding more police and fire department jobs, Curry is using the platform to “let developers know Jacksonville is ready for private investment.”
“Downtown must thrive,” Curry said during the presentation.
“You cannot be a suburb of nowhere,” he said, echoing what others, including developer Peter Rummell, have said for several years.
A 6.3 percent increase
The proposed budget is up $75.8 million, or 6.3 percent, from this year’s $1.197 billion.
There is no proposed change in the millage rate.
Curry intends to set aside $150.5 million for this year’s share of his proposed five-year capital improvement plan, a $1.2 billion investment strategy that includes 223 ongoing or updated projects.
Of that, $46.7 million would be paid for with available cash and grants and the remaining $103.7 million would be financed by debt.
For 2017-18, Curry wants to begin work on 103 projects, including the $16 million to take down the old government buildings and repair the waterfront.
He said another attraction to recruit private investment is to spend city money on infrastructure like roads, bridges and sidewalks.
Curry called infrastructure the “backbone of any great city.”
Nearly $24 million is set aside for sidewalk improvement projects, including $2.6 million for ADA compliance.
Another $12 million could go toward county road improvements.
Continuing his theme of improving Downtown and the surrounding neighborhoods, Curry wants to spend $1 million to extend and enhance the Southbank Riverwalk, $2.1 million to repair or replace bulkheads along the St. Johns River, $1 million to enhance landscaping Downtown and $1.25 million to make improvements to Friendship Fountain.
The commitment to infrastructure could be a precursor to the city’s involvement with two major development projects in the works for Downtown - the proposed Shipyards development on the Northbank and The District on the Southbank.
No economic development agreement has been reached between the city and Shad Khan’s Iguana Investments group to develop the Shipyards.
Developers of the District, including Rummell, have not purchased the property from JEA.
Brosche: Budget must balance everyone’s needs
Council must approve a budget before the new fiscal year starts Oct. 1.
The council Finance Committee will spend most of August dissecting the budget, line by line.
New council President Anna Brosche chaired the finance committee last year and said she expects the review process to be similar this year.
She said the hardest part of the process was considering every district’s needs with a finite amount of money.
“You have to balance everyone’s needs,” she said.
Brosche said while she wasn’t an expert in real estate development, being proactive with improvements to roads and other infrastructure seemed to be a good start for improving conditions Downtown.
“Every step that we take in the process of making Downtown a thriving place is important, and that sounds like one of those steps,” Brosche said.
Overall, she said this year’s budget was in line with what she’s seen out of Curry’s administration since he took office in 2015.
Asked whether Curry’s priorities matched her own as council president, Brosche said, “at the surface, without digging into this just yet, it sounds like they’re not very far apart, if not pretty much in sync.”
Taxpayer incentives also are factors that influence private development. Brosche said she supports those under the right circumstances.
Curry’s budget includes $400,000 in Economic Development Training Grants for both Amazon.com and General Electric as part of previously approved incentives packages.
Funding for Qualified Target Industry grants, which provide tax breaks in exchange for jobs, is up slightly this year, from $609,575 to $766,975.
“I am in support of an investment that brings jobs to Jacksonville to provide for the citizens, especially where there is a return on our investment,” said Brosche.
She also repeated one of the primary themes from Curry’s budget presentation: pension reform and what city leadership now can accomplish because of it.
Earlier this year, council passed reforms aimed at resolving the city’s $2.7 billion unfunded pension liability, which resulted in the extension of a half-cent sales tax.
Curry said the city is in a much stronger position to increase spending for infrastructure, public safety and other critical services.
He also said the reforms were about remaining fiscally responsible and “not about figuring out how to put Christmas presents under the Christmas tree,” or finding new ways to spend money.
Curry wants to put an extra $52 million into the city’s Pension Reserve Fund, and would like to see the city’s emergency funds increased as well.
“We are preparing for the city’s future because times will not always be good,” he said.