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For Mayor: None of the Above?

This editorial by Darcy G. Richardson appeared in the March print edition of the Jacksonville Observer.

If the first televised debate was any indication, Jacksonville voters still have few clues as to how the city’s next mayor will deal with the city’s looming fiscal crisis, a budget shortfall estimated at $60-65 million in 2012 and projected to grow to more than $170 million by 2015, the final year of the next mayor’s first term.

Half of those deficits are attributed to the city’s ballooning pension costs, particularly those of the police and fire unions. Moreover, the next mayor will have only a few weeks to present a budget to City Council.

The GOP’s Rick Mullaney, a policy wonk who has reportedly raised more than $697,000 in his mayoral quest and whose lavish campaign spending has been augmented by more than $400,000 raised by a 527 supporting his candidacy, probably has the most detailed plan to deal with the city’s pension crisis.

The problem, however, is that Mullaney himself is the beneficiary of one of the most generous government pensions in Jacksonville history — more than $140,000 a year, the result of a behind-the-scenes, painstakingly elaborate overhaul of the city’s existing pension plan designed to benefit a handful of public officials, including Mullaney, who was partly responsible for overseeing the attorneys responsible for rewriting the pension code.

That's $140,000 a year for life.

Mullaney said that intends to keep his cushy, taxpayer-subsidized pension if elected mayor, but promises to donate a portion of it to charity.

Though he was the first candidate in the race to take to the television airwaves, it’s little wonder that Mullaney’s pleas for pension reform have fallen on deaf ears, failing to resonate with a majority of the city’s voters. Like the vast majority of those in the private sector, Mullaney wants future city employees to begin contributing to their own 401(k) plans.

To many critics, it contains more than a hint of hypocrisy, particularly now that the former Jacksonville General Counsel has secured his own lucrative retirement courtesy of financially-strapped Duval County taxpayers.

A former prosecutor and top city attorney under both Mayor John Delaney and Mayor Peyton, the 55-year-old Mullaney has also promised not to raise taxes as part of his voluminous 34-point plan to shrink government and revitalize Jacksonville’s battered economy.

“He’s been feeding at the public trough for so long, he doesn’t realize how ridiculous this makes him look,” said one longtime and angry Westside voter. “All of the sudden, he’s the taxpayers’ best friend, our savior. Give me a break. He‘s been a key player in the administrations that have nearly bankrupted our city.”

While that’s not necessarily the way Audrey Moran would phrase it, she probably agrees.

While that’s not necessarily the way Audrey Moran would phrase it, she probably agrees. Refusing to adopt George H.W. Bush’s infamous “Read My Lips” refrain, Moran has said that while she doesn’t want to raise taxes, calling for tax cuts, or even hinting at the possibility that taxes won’t be raised in the middle of a deep recession — as Mullaney has promised — is highly irresponsible, particularly when the city faces a $60 million deficit.

“Every time a candidate makes such a pledge, it ends up being broken,” she told the Times-Union earlier this year.

While Moran’s statement might not be a resounding profile in courage, it’s probably the closest thing that the Jacksonville electorate will hear in terms of straight talk from the mayoral candidates in the campaign’s waning days.

Moran says tax cuts are not the answer to Jacksonville’s fiscal problems.

“We will never simply cut our way to prosperity,” she said during the first televised debate.

Moran, a former aide to Mayors Ed Austin and John Delaney, is the CEO of the Sulzbacher Center for the homeless, a “non-profit” agency almost entirely dependent on government grants from which she draws a lucrative annual salary of over $150,000 — a figure larger than the reported private charitable contributions to the organization in recent years. Remarkably, this is the same Sulzbacher Center that recently announced it would stop serving lunch to the homeless in order to save $50,000 a year.

According to the latest campaign finance filings, Moran has raised more than $574,000, about $123,000 less than Mullaney. She, too, is the beneficiary of outside spending. The 527 organization supporting her candidacy has raised $250,000, including $25,000 contributions from Jacksonville Jaguars owner Wayne Weaver and his wife, Delores.

Arguably the most forthright candidate when it comes to dealing with Jacksonville’s current and future budget crises — a sea of red ink as far as the eye can see — Moran, one of the few candidates in the race with relevant experience in the private sector, said that her administration will strive to reduce the number of appointed city officials, including political appointees, and by looking for potential savings in the city’s use of space. She has also said that she’s open to the idea of privatizing the city’s fleet management.

While all of the candidates for mayor support using tax incentives to lure companies to relocate or expand in Jacksonville, Moran said that her administration will demand more accountability from those companies receiving incentives, and that the city will do a much better job in communicating those benefits to the taxpayers than has been done in the past.

For starters, she said that she would make the head of the Jacksonville Economic Development Commission (JEDC) part of her senior management team.

Meanwhile, Mike Hogan, who hopes to parlay his $149,097-a-year position as Duval County’s Tax Collector into a four-year term in the mayor’s office, has been billing himself as “the only true conservative” in the race.

Long regarded as a shoo-in for the May 17 runoff, Hogan, 61, has stumbled in recent weeks, committing at least one major gaffe, a stunningly awkward response — he claims that it was said in jest — to a question about the sanctity of life at a forum at St. Joseph's Catholic Church in Mandarin for which he later apologized.

His comment, presumably delivered with a mischievous Cheshire grin, that the idea of bombing abortion clinics “may have crossed my mind,” hasn’t proven fatal to his candidacy, but it may have given some voters pause. That undoubtedly includes more than a few startled Republicans.

Given his highly-touted conservative credentials, Hogan also disappointed some fiscal conservatives when he stated, in officially announcing his candidacy in October 2009, that he didn’t have enough details to say whether or not he would have supported a 9 percent property tax rate increase approved a month earlier.

That tax increase was the first of two back-to-back 9 percent property tax hikes imposed on Jacksonville‘s beleaguered homeowners.

While he says that he vigorously opposed the more recent 2010 property tax increase, Hogan, a cautious politician, has always played it relatively safe, rarely taking a leadership position on controversial public issues, and probably didn’t want to offend anyone on City Council in the wake of the 2009 tax hike.

Moreover, Hogan, who has been on the public payroll for the past twenty years, dating back to 1991 when he unexpectedly upset 14-year Westside Councilwoman Sylvia Webb-Thibault, has been heavy on conservative rhetoric, but rather vague on specifics when it comes to putting the city’s fiscal house in order.

Some say he doesn’t have a vision for the city. Others are disappointed that he hasn’t offered more details when it comes to budget cuts and pension reform.

Among his few specific proposals, Hogan said that he will eliminate funding for the Human Rights Commission — red meat for his party’s most rabid, right-wing element — saving taxpayers approximately $982,000 a year, and would reduce the costs of political appointees by as much as fifty percent.

Like several of his rivals, the two-term Tax Collector, whose own department’s budget has reportedly swelled to $14.7 million — a whopping 38% increase since first taking office in July 2003 — also insists that he would scale back staffing and salary levels in the mayor’s office, something that he hasn‘t bothered to do in his current position.

He also said that he would consider selling preservation lands to raise revenue for the cash-strapped city.

On the campaign trail, Hogan, who has been endorsed by the police and firefighters’ unions, has largely refused to mix it up with his rivals, skipping two of the three scheduled televised debates.

Despite that apparent aloofness, the self-described “rock-solid fiscal conservative” received a boost of sorts last week when the First Coast Tea Party unanimously endorsed his candidacy.

According to the latest campaign finance reports, covering the period ending February 25, Hogan had raised $478,000 while a 527 group, similar to the ones supporting Mullaney and Moran, reported raising $200,000 to promote his candidacy.

Democrat Alvin Brown agrees with his three Republican opponents on holding the line on spending, arguing that raising taxes or city fees is not the answer given Jacksonville’s high rate of joblessness.

Brown, who continuously touts his experience during the Clinton administration, has made job creation the centerpiece of his campaign, but unlike Mullaney and Moran, he’s rather vague when it comes to specifics about turning Jacksonville’s recession-ravaged economy around, almost as if he expects former President Bill Clinton and ex-Vice President Al Gore to suddenly swoop into the River City and magically create thousands of new jobs.

Brown’s campaign web site says that making credit and capital available to small businesses will be “a top priority” of his administration, but provides precious few details about how he — as a mayor, and not a banker — will accomplish that.

Even Ben Bernanke hasn’t been able to figure that out.

Brown, who has been noticeably absent from almost as many mayoral forums as Republican frontrunner Mike Hogan, unsuccessfully challenged U.S. Rep. Corrine Brown in the 1994 Democratic primary, polling 33% of the vote against the incumbent. Incidentally, the ten-term congresswoman, who once called him a “carpetbagger,” is now supporting him for mayor.

Brown, who has an MBA from Jacksonville University and did post-graduate work at Harvard University’s JFK School of Government, served as a senior aide to President Bill Clinton and later directed the White House's Community Empowerment Board, a federal program that oversees billions in urban renewal programs.

Following Clinton’s years in the White House, Brown returned to Jacksonville where he served as chairman of the National Black MBA Association and later as the director of the Willie Gary Football Classic.

In 2009, he was appointed an executive in residence at Jacksonville University's Davis College of Business, a post that pays him $24,000 a year.

Brown has raised more than $139,000 for his campaign, largely the result of the fundraising prowess of Clinton, Gore and billionaire Robert Johnson, founder of the Black Entertainment Television (BET) network. He reportedly has more than $71,000 on hand heading into the crowded March 22 primary.

Brown, who attended all of last year’s Citizen Budget Workshop meetings, said that if elected one of his first priorities will be to conduct a comprehensive fiscal review of the city budget and pension plan to find potential savings, something that most candidates — at least those with some sort of vision of where they want to take the city — probably should have done prior to jumping into the mayor’s race.

That includes, he says, the creation of a Financial Review Task Force, comprised of corporate and financial experts, to oversee a top-to-bottom review of city programs and services.

When in doubt, create a blue-ribbon commission.

While promising to take a 20 percent pay cut — an idea brazenly borrowed from his lone Democratic rival — Brown said that he will also examine the size and salary structure of the mayor’s staff and other city appointees, a number that has swelled to more than 1,000 in recent years.

Similarly, long-shot candidate Warren Lee, a 45-year-old political unknown who baffled political observers earlier this year by collecting 12,000 signatures — only 5,271 were needed — on nominating petitions to earn a spot on the March 22 primary ballot, said that his administration will not raise taxes. He, too, is light on details, promising, for example, to repeal the unpopular garbage, storm water and drainage fees without specifically explaining how he would make up for that lost revenue.

If miraculously elected, the unemployed, former corrections officer for the Department of Juvenile Justice has promised to take a hefty, fifty percent pay cut as an example of the kind of belt-tightening leadership that his administration will provide.

Unlike Brown, Lee has appeared at virtually every candidate forum — at least those in which the Gainesville native has been invited.

Though given almost no chance of making the May runoff election and virtually shunned by the Duval County Democratic Party, the divorced father of three adult children might be less of a “mystery candidate” — the Folio Weekly, for instance, recently suggested that he might be some sort of Republican plant — than previously assumed and has earned the undying affection of some local Democratic activists.

“He’s a wonderful man, a very compassionate individual,” said 75-year-old Dolly Simplot, a former Orange Park resident and ex-vice chair of the Clay County Democratic Executive Committee.

“Nobody has worked harder than Warren Lee,” she told the Jacksonville Observer. “He really cares about the city and its people, particularly the unemployed and those on fixed incomes, and could surprise a lot of people on March 22.”

Strapped for funds throughout the campaign, Lee has spent less than $8,000 on his long-shot candidacy.

As in 1995 and 2003, Jacksonville voters will also see Steve Irvine‘s name on the ballot in the mayor’s race. Irvine, who is running without party affiliation, is the longtime owner of Yesterdays in Avondale. As in his previous campaigns, the 58-year-old bar owner is focusing on three issues: reducing crime, preventing disease, and improving Duval County’s public schools.

Irvine conceded early in the campaign that his chances of pulling off a major upset are “absolutely zero.”

It’s refreshing that there’s at least one realistic candidate in the race — one who will actually keep his word.

1 Responses »

  1. Great article! Best I've seen on the pros and cons of the candidates!