One Problem, Two Approaches
I’ve spent a lot of time the past couple of weeks listening to the two top city government officials discuss the upcoming budget cycle and Mayor Peyton’s proposed 1.02 mil property tax increase, and it’s shaping up to be a “big bag of popcorn” debate.
Mayor Peyton and Richard Clark (the current City Council President) have both been my guest on The Jacksonville Observer Radio Show, and while Council President Clark had to leave after only half the program, I think he went away having made most of his points.
Mayor Peyton was also my guest on Eric Smith’s “People and Politics”, which I was asked to host while Eric is on vacation. Richard Clark was the speaker Friday at the First Coast Tiger Bay Club luncheon. And I’m sure I’ll hear more as the weeks progress. Clark is holding town meetings around the region to get community input on the issue, and Mayor Peyton, when he begins one of these campaigns, takes a page from the John Delaney playbook on The Better Jacksonville Plan. He’ll speak to pretty much any group that will give him a hearing on the issue, and this is a very good thing. The mayor is accessible, and that’s the way it should be.
So where do we stand? Mayor Peyton has to convince 10 members of the city council to vote for a budget that includes his property tax increase, which would amount to less than $100 on an “average” home with a taxable value of about $140,000 or so, during a recession. We already know that at least one member, the Council President, will vote ‘No’ if there is a property tax increase in the budget. He told me on WBOB and said again at Tiger Bay that the only way property taxes should be increased is if the increase is approved by referendum. He did add at Tiger Bay that, if everyone at the town meetings stood up and said they thought a property tax increase was the best, or only way out of our budget hole, he might be persuadable. But, he was quick to add that almost no one is standing up in support of a tax increase.
The Mayor, for his part, knows he’s fighting an uphill battle. It’s his second uphill battle this year, after trying to convince the council to extend the Waste Management contract on the Trail Ridge landfill, and that didn’t work out so well. But you don’t have to talk to Mayor Peyton very long to know he’s sincere in his aversion to the tax increase, but convinced of its necessity.
The arguments on both sides are well stated. Peyton says the 1.02 mil increase will only bring the property tax rate back to its 2007 level. It was rolled back due to a voter-approved property tax cut on the 2008 presidential primary ballot. While the placement of that measure on the ballot in that particular election is fodder for another column, Duval County voters voted it down … though not by an overwhelming majority. Just under 53% of Duval county voters chose “no” on Amendment One. And, Council President Clark points out that the fees for that were put in place following that rollback were to make up the shortfall. No one is talking about repealing the fees if property taxes are increased.
Of course, the 800 pound gorilla in the room is the city’s three pension plans… police and fire, corrections, and general employees. There is currently an actuarial unfunded liability on the pensions of around $2 billion. That means that if everyone eligible decided to retire at the same time, that’s how much the city would be short. And that number is expected to continue to grow. Servicing the pension is a primary reason for the increases in the proposed budgets of the Sheriff’s office and Fire and Rescue. Every other city department is slated for a 5% across the board cut. Clark said at Tiger Bay that if the pension negotiations go to impasse, and the council makes the decisions, the pension plans will not be held sacrosanct. All bets are off.
Council President Clark is confident the Finance Committee can balance the budget without a tax increase. He recently expanded the Finance Committee to nine members, adding Johnny Gaffney and Denise Lee to the panel.
But underlying all of this is a level of transparency we haven’t seen on the budget process in some time, which was one of the problems underscored by the JCCI study on the budget. Mayor Peyton and Council President Clark are both making their appointed rounds, talking to taxpayers and voters, and checking not only public opinion but also the political wind. And anyone who thinks politics doesn’t play a significant role in this is kidding themselves. Mayor Peyton is somewhat free from that aspect of the situation, as he’s got two more years in office and says he doesn’t plan to seek another, other than maybe an office at Gate Petroleum. Those that do plan to seek office, either as an incumbent, a challenger, or an open seat, have a tightrope to walk as they craft the budget. Politicians, particularly Republicans, who vote for tax increases usually have to defend that decision come election time.
We all know in what kind of city we want to live. We want smooth roads, trash picked up and transported to the landfill, clean water, which means a healthy river, parks for both kids and adults to enjoy, and maybe most importantly to feel safe on the streets and secure in our homes. Clark said at Tiger Bay that, for all our talk about a crime problem in Jacksonville, a national study didn’t put us in even the top tier of unsafe cities in the nation. Miami, Orlando, and Tampa all make the top 15, but not Jacksonville. But that’s not the perception that many here have.
While Jacksonville struggles with its budget like so many households, the argument is often made that that in a recession, families can’t just increase income. But ask anyone who’s gone out and gotten a second, or third, job to make ends meet if that’s the case. Yes, families tighten their belts, and government should do so. And while this statement is NOT an endorsement of a tax increase, when the belt’s so tight it’s cutting off the circulation, well sometimes you just gotta do what you’ve gotta do. What has to be determined is whether we’re at that point, and there’s an honest difference of opinion on that score.