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One Problem, Two Approaches

Tom PattonI’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.

Popcorn, anyone?

3 Responses »

  1. It would take a lot more than has been presented to convince me that our city's belt tightening has resulted in cut off circulation. I am just not convinced that our government is run as efficiently as it could be.

    And it doesn't matter if Peyton wants to raise taxes 10 cents; a tax increase is an expansion of government.

    Sure, he proposes an increase of "only" about $100 to the average tax bill, but that $100 represents a lot of money to many people. Our mayor has never had to worry about making ends meet from week to week, or have to choose between paying the rent or buying food or medicine.

    Is the Ritz Theatre a "necessity"? Is funding the Jacksonville Journey a "necessity"? Is keeping all library branches open a "necessity"? Not in my book.

    Why aren't the public safety departments having to "share in the pain"? What is Peyton's plan for dealing with the pension crisis?

    I propose that the public safety pension plan be reformed as follows: Establish a two-tier pension system. The system remains as-is for current employees. Establish a defined-contribution, 401(k) type plan for all new employees. Limit city contributions to the new plan, and bite the bullet and fund the existing plan as required by our existing agreements.

    Cut back all non-essential city services. By non-essential I mean anything not related to public safety (police, fire and garbage pickup). Do away with the recycling program if it doesn't make money. Cut funding for everything else until the budget is balanced.

    Let me at the budget with a red pen and I'll show the mayor how to balance the budget.

  2. As I sat and listened to Mayor Peytons presentation of the budget and it's shortfalls, I came to the conclusion that this man honestly wants the best for this city. He visited with a group of hard-core fiscal conservatives, and was able to change a few minds. Not because of an elaborate presentation, or with eloquence; but with an honest presentation of the facts as he saw them from his perspective. In my opinion, the man is honorable and sincerely wants the best for the City of Jacksonville.

    In better fiscal times, I might be convinced that these increases (in all fairness, they aren't "hikes" giving the term represents a gargantuan measure) are tolerable. But these are not "better fiscal times". After recieving no less than 3 utillity rate increases, and now the School Board wanting more money; I've come to the conclusion that I can't support this increase.

    My impression was Mayor Peyton felt his team had already made hard decisions about budget cuts, and that he/they made wise decisions to keep the city functional and humane. My opinion is they've accomplished much, but there is still pencil-work to be done. There are still opportunities to cut spending, save money, and keep our great city functioning at satisfactory levels.

    These opportunities are present in our human service areas. I don't think we should stop working with at risk children, challenged families, the aged or the ill. I do think we can cut spending in those areas. Some of those opportunities exist by using volunteers to work with the needy in our city. For example; instead of hiring people to babysit other peoples children, we can encourage churches, civic organizations, retired people to mentor these children. We can bring middle-managers out of offices 1-2 days per week to put on their sneakers, and "go play with the kids".

    There is Park land that can be sold to future developers. The Mayor was very proud of the fact that Jacksonville has the largest city Park System in the country. I'm proud of that as well. But the reality is there is opportunity to create revenue by selling some of the lesser-used parks. Many of which become negative influences in their areas after sunset. There are hundreds of non-violent prisoners who can tend to mundane city tasks. Every non-violent can earn "time off" for serving the city they once offended. It might even be therapeutic for them! The point being, there are still unconventional opportunities, just as working people are incorporating into their lives to get through this terrible recession.
    One must also factor in the liabilities of the current administration and Congress. If successful, there are GARGANTUAN financial liabilities being discussed as this opinion is being read. There are indeed consequences to voting (or not voting, as the case may be).

    There is also the issue of city retirement programs. While I agree that those who protect us should be treated well, I don't think they should be given the keys to the citys' safe. Unions need to work with the city to find REASONABLE retirement packages: not break the city. Drastic? Maybe, unreasonable? I don't think so.

    Americans all over the country are making difficult decisions to deal with a very bad economic situation. They are cutting costs, looking for part-time work, and stalling projects that need to be done; eventually. The fact that city officials can arbitrarily say "we aren't going to make the hard choices, we'll just raise rates" is not only narcissistic, it's cruel to those who do the living and working in that city.
    While I don't believe Mayor Peyton to be cruel or caloussed, the budget, the paradigm, in it's practical application:is. Instead of just meeting with anyone who'll listen to him, I suggest the Mayor meet with citizens to determine what they are willing to cut, live without, etcetera.

    Mayor Peyton is an honorable man, we happen to disagree on this budget issue. I personally cannot support the budget. I hope the City Council agrees.

  3. Mr.Davis, I agree with you that there are more areas that can be cut. It has already been brought up that $16 Million is earmarked for Metro Park improvements. In better times we might be able to afford that but during a recession, we all must find savings that are from those considered luxuries. I believe that the City Council, with input from its citizens, will do the right things.