JaxPoliticsOnline.com

Observations and musings on Jacksonville Politics

The Tax Conversation Continued

The news from Jacksonville.com on Tuesday was discouraging—Jacksonville’s Public Libraries are facing a budget cut of $1.1 million next year, even if a proposed 12% hike in the millage rate is passed.  This cut, David Hunt points out, is on top of a $1 million cut the city imposed last year.  (That cut was partially made up by the state, but with the state in dire straits, don’t expect a repeat this year.)  If the Mayor’s millage rate increase is not passed, the Times-Union reports that the city will close 5 of the city’s 21 public libraries.

While some may shrug their shoulders and argue that, in times of economic hardship, libraries are something that can be sacrificed.  However, a visit to your local Jacksonville Library will likely show that they are a necessary service—particularly when money is tight for the average citizen.

For this writer, it’s personal.  As a child who was an avid reader and grew up without a television, the public library was my only means of gaining knowledge.  I vividly remember concealing Hardy Boys books between historical biographies as I snuck back into my house after a trip to the library.  (The Hardy Boys were deemed too “worldly” for me to read, so I had to consume them on the sly.)  For many Duval County youth (and adults), public libraries remain the sole means of expanding their knowledge base.

With the news breaking on Wednesday that decreases in the property tax roll were not as severe as anticipated, the Mayor has now scaled back his tax increase recommendation to 1.02 mills.  According to the Mayor’s Office, this rate of 9.5 mills would place the city close to the rate the city had in place three years ago before Amendment 1 was passed.  Of course, there were no Stormwater Fees, Garbage Fees or JEA Franchise Fees three years ago.  Not to mention the Duval County School Board is also pondering a millage rate hike.  Because of those facts, it’s rather disingenuous to say the city is returning to 2006 tax levels—it’s a tactic voters see through and resent.

That aside, some are now asking why the Mayor would propose a tax increase that only “maintains the status quo.”  They wonder what Jacksonville has accomplished if the Council approves a 12% increase in property taxes and necessary services are still severely impacted.  How can a tax increase that does nothing to improve the city’s long-term financial woes make this a better city to live in?  After all, isn’t that the question we are to be asking—what kind of city do we want to live in?

While voter anger at the proposed tax increase has been quite vocal, many within the community have acknowledged the fact that Duval’s millage rate is low in comparison to other major metropolitan areas.  At the same time,they have expressed their concern that the Mayor is looking to push through an increase that does nothing for the future financial health of the city because the increase would be made before several crucial issues were resolved.  After all, the Mayor’s budget depends on two key components that are unknowns:

  • Furloughs for all non-public safety employees and zero raises across the board. Neither one of these options are a guarantee—they will have to be negotiated at the collective bargaining table.  The door appears to be left open for special pay increases.
  • Possibly modifying the 8.4% DROP guarantee that the Police & Fireman’s Pension Fund has, extending the retirement age and other key elements of the pension system. Once again, these reforms are absolutely not a guarantee.  They will have to be negotiated at the collective bargaining table with the most powerful unions in the city.  Duval County John Rutherford has already weighed in on the proposals for the Police & Fireman’s Pension Fund, recently telling WOKV reporter Jared Halpern that he is opposed to some of Peyton’s reforms.

If either of these crucial elements fails to pan out—and it is likely that some elements will not—the proposed budget will be in trouble.

The Mayor could more effectively make his case by backing away from a “doom and gloom” approach—an approach that has been used more than once over the last few years—and open up the process.  It’s not enough to tell the public that $30 million of the current budget shortfall is “from the global economic crisis.”  Voters should be shown the data that backs up this claim.

The Mayor should also explore the option of dedicating 1 mill of property tax revenue to funding ongoing capital maintenance and improvements—another suggestion of the JCCI study which has been largely ignored.  This dedication of funds is something that the public could see the results of with their own eyes.

The Mayor should move immediately to begin pressuring the Council to act on pension reform.  As Mayor, he has the bully pulpit in Jacksonville and the ability to drive the discussion.  Voters will remain wary of any tax increase proposed before pension reform in complete and unless the Mayor steps up to the plate now, any hope he has of winning support for his proposal decreases with each passing day.

Filed under: Jacksonville, Jacksonville City Council, Mayor of Jacksonville, , , , , , , , ,

To Hike Taxes or Not To Hike Taxes, That is the Question

As Jacksonville prepares to enter a tax hike debate that is certain to eclipse the contentious Trail Ridge debate, a civilized conversation about the future of Jacksonville and its finances is looking like a goal that may be rather difficult to acheive.  Several days ago, JaxPoliticsOnline.com published an article that included some of the public responses to the Mayor’s millage rate increase proposal.  The responses reviewed, which came from the Times-Union public message boards, were overwhelmingly negative.  While some were politely worded and focused on opposing the concept of a “growing government” and tax increases, many were devoid of civility in stating their opposition.  Part of the reason for the harsh tone may be a defensiveness of taxpayers who are nervous about the current economic state of the country, but a great deal of it might also lie in the manner in which the Mayor rolled out his plan.

Radio talk-show host and former Florida House Representative Andy Johnson was one of the most vocal in expressing his displeasure with the Mayor’s approach.  Johnson called the Mayor’s discussion of closed fire stations “unfair”.  Johnson argued that it was “wrong” for the Mayor to “threaten that [he would] close fire stations if [he] didn’t get what he wanted.”

Johnson’s reaction was hardly unique, as another e-mail respondent insisted that the Mayor “stop these fear tactics.”  Another e-mail from Don Welfare, a city employee, asked the Mayor if he planned on personally embracing some of his own recommendations by having he and his staff take the furloughs he proposed for the rest of city employees.

In Sunday’s paper, the Times-Union editorial board said it best when they expressed their concerns over “another rush job” by the Administration.  Perhaps more than anything, that “rush job” is at the core of what troubles Duval County voters.

The Mayor has cited the recent JCCI study that called for additional revenue sources in proposing his tax increase, but he has chosen to ignore another crucial recommendation in that JCCI study—rebuilding public trust.  An Administration with a series of high-profile missteps will not rebuild public trust by proposing a property tax hike without first engaging the public.  That failure to engage before a major decision is something that has plagued John Peyton from day one.  People do not wish to be told you are “open to listening” after you spring a “recommendation” on them, they want to see you out listening before the “recommendation” is made.  Jacksonville’s budget woes are hardly new, so why the need to spring a tax hike on voters with barely a month for voters (and the City Council) to react?  Wouldn’t it be likely that responses would be less reactionary if an ongoing conversation between the Mayor and voters had been taking place for several months?

Tax hikes are never easy and the public is rarely thrilled.  However, increases are much more palatable when the public is firmly convinced that its government has taken every possible step to ensure existing dollars are being well spent.  While Duval County’s millage rate is one of the lowest of any major metropolitan area in the country, there are still concerns over the expenditure of current tax revenues.

In early May, JaxPoliticsOnline.com published an article that discussed the continued growth of AMIO positions.  For those not familiar with these positions, AMIO’s are Assistant Management Improvement Officers and are often special positions that are typically filled through a process that involves no formal job qualifications, established responsibilities or pay ranges for the positions.  While the Mayor pledged to reform this process four years ago, these positions have grown dramatically—from 125 AMIO’s making $7.5 million in 2005 to 166 AMIO’s making nearly $11.2 million today.  The individuals in these positions currently include the children of a former council member and a former mayor, as well as a former council member himself.

The situation with AMIO’s is hardly unique in Jacksonville government.  Voters have repeatedly expressed frustration over issues ranging from the ongoing pension crisis to the assertion that the budget for the Mayor’s Office and the City Council has burgeoned over the past eight years.  All of these unaddressed issues make acceptance of a tax increase incredibly difficult for the average Jacksonville resident.  The many who are passionate about funding the arts, believe in the missions of the city’s non-profits and are absolutely convinced the city must invest in its decaying infrastructure, are wary of a tax increase being proposed before they have witnessed a good faith effort to clean up wastefulness within the existing budget.

With the cat already out of the proverbial bag it’s hard to know where to start on the current proposal.  It’s problematic to have a discussion when one party’s mind is already made up before the conversation begins.  Nevertheless, it is time Jacksonville begin a conversation on our future.  If the Mayor has any hope of convincing a wary public to back his plan, he might want to restart the process.  If he could rush through a tax hike, perhaps he could also move quickly to engage the unions on the pension issue.  He could move to immediately scale back AMIO’s within his Administration and eliminate any position that exists without clearly defined job responsibilities, qualifications and a pay range.  He could also trim his staff, as well as the City Council’s.  He should engage the public in requesting recommendations for areas that can be trimmed.  Then, and only then, should he move forward with a tax increase.

The hike may very well be inevitable, but shouldn’t it be the last step in solving our budget woes, not the first?

Filed under: Jacksonville, Jacksonville City Council, Mayor of Jacksonville, , , , , , , , , , , ,

Contemplating Tax Hikes

The next month is certain to be filled with heated discussions over tax hikes in Jacksonville.  This year’s hike, proposed as an increase in the property tax millage rate, is already beginning to elicit strong feedback from the community, particularly from homeowner’s who feel they are being unfairly targeted.  (For what it’s worth, increases in property taxes also impact renters, whose rent is typically increased to cover the property taxes charged to their landlord.)

Tomorrow, JaxPoliticsOnline.com intends to look at how Jacksonville can have a civilized and constructive conversation over the proposals.  There are; however, a few items that should be considered must-reads as the City begins the discussion.  On Friday, Ron Littlepage implored voters to “look at the facts” before opposing the property tax hike proposed by the Mayor.  Yesterday, David Hunt looked at the $31 million the Mayor has identified as having been trimmed from the budget over the previous three years—and the fact that city spending has actually increased by $102 million during that time period.  Today, the editorial board of the Times-Union takes a look at what they call “another rush job” by the Administration.  They fault the Mayor for a lack of community involvement on the front end, leaving voters (and the City Council) barely a month to vet the proposal before it must be voted on.

Much, much more to come on this subject in the ensuing week and month.  Stay tuned.

Filed under: Jacksonville, Jacksonville City Council, Mayor of Jacksonville, , , , , , , , ,

City Facing $65 million Budget Deficit

In this morning’s Times-Union, reporter Tia Mitchell writes about the $65 million budget deficit facing the City of Jacksonville in the upcoming fiscal year.  The budget, which is due from the Mayor in several weeks, was already under pressure from the state-mandated property tax cuts which were part of the “Save Our Homes” amendment passed several years ago.  When combined with declining property values and a sour economic outlook, next year’s budget picture looks rather bleak.

Jacksonville now faces the challenge of being forced to cut services even more than they have already been cut do deal with the deficit.  The alternative—raising the millage rate—is an unlikely option, particularly in light of the fact that many council members, who would have to vote on the increase, face re-election in 2011.  They are unlikely to support the increase, especially in light of the fact that the 2007 fee increases remain so widely unpopular.

It would seem that its time for the Mayor to effectively make his case to voters as to why more cuts are not an option.  Perhaps a listening tour is in order.

If there was ever a time for someone to step into a leadership role in Jacksonville, the time would appear to be now.

Filed under: Jacksonville, Jacksonville City Council, Mayor of Jacksonville, , , , , ,

Property Tax Cap Will Not be on 2010 Ballot

A proposal pushed by former Florida House Speaker (and likely US Senate Candidate) Marco Rubio that would put a cap on property taxes statewide is off the 2010 ballot.  From the AP:

The Florida Supreme Court has knocked a proposal for a property tax cap off the 2010 ballot.

The proposal is a citizen initiative that would cap property taxes at 1.35 percent of the highest taxable value of a home, business or other real estate, although voters could approve exceptions.

Petition sponsors Cut Property Taxes Now said tax cuts ordered by law last year and through another state constitutional amendment passed in January 2008 don’t go far enough.

The justices could only determine if the proposal covered a single subject and had a clear and accurate title and ballot summary.

In an opinion posted Friday, five justices said the proposal was exempt from the single-subject requirement, but its ballot summary was misleading.

The initiative was exempt from the single-subject requirement because it directly limits the power of government to raise revenue, the opinion said.

However, according to the opinion, the initiative’s ballot summary was misleading because it failed to point out that any property taxes approved by voters cannot extend for longer than two years. The majority also found that the summary was inconsistent with the language of the amendment.

Filed under: Florida, Florida Politics, , , ,

Are Baldwin’s Property Taxes Higher than Jacksonville’s?

The answer may surprise you.  With yesterday’s post about the possibility that local property tax revenues may actually decrease throughout the state, I found this discovery rather enlightening.

One of the obsessive compulsive disorders that began during the 1990′s in Jacksonville was the annual slashing of the City’s millage rate.  Local politicians touted Jacksonville as a “leader” in the fight for lower property taxes while ignoring any repercussions that might result from year after year of tax cuts.  During this time, Jacksonville has seen murder rates skyrocket and funding for social services programs slashed. 
Read the rest of this entry »

Filed under: Jacksonville, Jacksonville City Council, Mayor of Jacksonville, , , , ,

Property Taxes Capped in 2009?

Unless local governments decide to override the state cap—something Jacksonville’s City Council has shown an unwillingness to do—they could wind up with lower revenues in 2009 to meet growing demand for basic public services. From the Orlando Sentinel:

Tax assessments on primary homeowners in Florida will basically be capped in 2009 — unless local governments raise their millage — state officials have announced.

That could be good news for strapped homeowners, who may not see higher tax bills.

But it also may deal another multimillion-dollar blow to local governments already struggling with declines in tax revenues used to provide basic services such as fire and police protection, libraries and garbage pickup.

A preliminary estimate Friday by Orange County Property Appraiser Bill Donegan said the near-cap on assessments could result in a nearly $9 million loss, against the $724 million in property taxes that Orange County government collected last year.

Filed under: Florida, Florida Legislature, Florida Politics, Jacksonville, Jacksonville City Council, ,

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