Financing Jacksonville’s Future
It doesn’t take long reading JCCI’s “Our Money, City: Financing Jacksonville’s Future” report to get to the bottom line.
The first sentence of the report summary states it was the consensus of the group that “In Spring 2008, the City of Jacksonville faced a funding crisis.”
I was a member for the committee that studied the city’s finances. I joined the committee mid-stream, and went diligently every Tuesday at lunch for 5 months … sans lunch.
As the final report was being drafted, the group debated that word “crisis” for probably half an hour. Is this a crisis? What defines a crisis? Is that word too strong? We honestly spent half a meeting on that one word, and that gives you an idea of how seriously we took this report.
This is the third time JCCI has studied the city’s financial situation. The first was in 1977. “Local Government Finance”. It was 15 years later that the local non-profit think-tank tackled the topic again in “Long Term Financial Health of The City of Jacksonville” in 1992. The issues discussed in all three of the studies are amazingly similar, tax revenue, government spending, and pensions all have a starring role in each of the studies. Interestingly, all three have coincided with economic recessions.
The reasons for the city’s financial problems are pretty basic. Due to a number factors, we collect less in tax revenue and fees, which some argue are exactly the same thing, than we have obligations to pay. Property values have fallen, and sales tax revenues are down because people aren’t buying as much due to the economic downturn. The state has pushed a lot of spending off to the cities because they don’t have any money either, and the city’s 3 pension plans have a huge unfunded liability. Cutting spending is an attractive option, but we already spend less per capita than any other major city in the state on public safety, fire protection, public works, and recreation. We have the most parkland, and spend the least per capita of any major city on park upkeep. Making those comparisons was the topic of another long debate, since there is no other major city/county consolidated government to use as a basis of comparison.
The study’s recommendations are divided into two parts. It was the consensus of the committee that the financial crisis is driven in part by external forces, part by lack of a shared vision for the future, in part by some poor financial and political choices, and in part by a lack of public trust in how government operates. Among the recommendations are making the hard choices of cutting services or raising revenue, greater transparency in the budgeting process, and defining core government functions. The City Charter, which is currently under review, does not define those core functions, in part because they are subject to the political process. In our “Strong Mayor” system of government, the mayor is able to define what he, or someday she, considers those core functions should be. It is a moving target.
The entire report is online at the JCCI website. For anyone interested in how we’ve come to be in the present situation, it’s good primer. There are a lot of charts and graphs provided by the city describing city spending and revenues, and a good explanation of the pension situation.
The good news is, it’s not just finished, printed, and forgotten. A two-year implementation phase is planned, and the first of those meetings are yet to be held. The previous studies brought the city the “TRUE” (Taxation, Revenue, and Utilization of Expenditures) Commission, which is the city’s tax watchdog. It elected new officers last week. But more than half of the recommendations in the report deal with improving transparency, and re-establishing and building public trust on the part of City Government.
I suppose that having a citizen committee look into city finances every 15 years or so is not necessarily a bad thing. But should a JCCI topics committee in 2023 decide that it’s time for another look at the city’s finances, we should all hope that some of the issues that have been faced the past 30 years will have finally been resolved.