Another Difficult Budget
The budget calls for the elimination of 40 vacant positions, reduces part-time and overtime funding, and maybe most interestingly, does not renew contracts for state and federal lobbyists.
On the revenue side is where it gets sticky. The Mayor’s budget follows an increase in garbage fees with another 9 percent increase in the property tax millage rate. With the average price of a home in Jacksonville about $142,000 these days, it boils down to less than $100 per year, but there are a lot of homeowners who are struggling to pay their taxes now, and that $100 might really make a difference. That’s after a 9 percent increase last year.
The cuts that were not made in the Mayor’s budget include things like the wholesale closing of libraries and the elimination of the Fourth of July fireworks. It had been suggested that the city turn off half its street lights to save money. But libraries which had hours cut earlier this year will continue to operate on the reduced schedule. All told, the cuts total about $40 of the $60 million gap.
There have been significant concessions made by both the firefighters union and the Jacksonville Supervisors Association, both in pay cuts and benefit contributions. Those bargaining bodies are to be commended for making a painful decision which will certainly help keep the budget in balance, and which the mayor says could serve as a model nationwide for municipalities facing similar situations. And there are a lot of them.
Mayor Peyton said in his budget address Wednesday that, for the first time since consolidation, the city’s $955 million dollar budget represents total spending that is less than the previous year.
The Mayor can only propose a budget. Now it is up to the City Council to go through it with a fine tooth comb, and see if the cuts are appropriate, which certainly needs to be done before any revenue increase is warranted. There are five former council presidents on the finance committee. That’s a lot of firepower, and current council president Jack Webb has said nothing is on or off the table. He’s pledged to actually read the budget before deciding on any tax increase.
That should not be undertaken lightly, and the current council certainly will not do so. They are not alone in facing these challenges. Municipalities nationwide are faced with falling property values that are eroding their tax bases, and increasing demands on services. Jacksonville is no exception, and the fact of a struggling worldwide economy does not seem to alleviate the desire for government services. Mayor Peyton says his proposed millage rate for the coming year of 10.12 mils, or $10.12 for every $1,000 of assessed value, after homestead exemptions and other deductions, is “revenue neutral.” It’s what the Mayor says is needed to maintain the level of services currently offered by the city.
The finance committee and the full city council needs to be judicious in looking for additional savings. We’ve been hearing for some time that the budget has been cut “to the bone”, but the projections made by the Mayor in his budget address seem to indicated that the current budget is but the tip of the iceberg, and if there are not fundamental changes primarily in employee pensions it may not be too far in the future that we are pining for the days of 9 percent tax increases. It would seem on its face that neither is sustainable for the long term. So along with the fundamental changes that are likely necessary to put the city’s financial house in order, it is incumbent on the legislators to be sure it has found and eliminated as many redundancies as possible, and that the government is running, as they say in the aviation business, at peak lean instead of full rich. All the while cognizant of the fact that every “redundancy” is also a person, and that person very likely doesn’t feel they are redundant.
That’s the Sophie’s Choice that is faced. None of the options are particularly good. It is never easy, or pleasant, to put a human face on the numbers and ask a person with bills and taxes to pay to make do with less, or nothing at all. But neither is it possible to continue to ask taxpayers, predominantly home and business owners, to continue to dip into a well that is on the verge of running dry. So, if we are to continue to cut city government, there needs to be a business climate that creates jobs so that those displaced out of civil service have somewhere to go. Because an unemployed person is far more likely to default on a mortgage, affecting the property taxes base, buys only essentials, which affects sales taxes, or leaves for greener pastures.
Just ask Detroit.