JaxPoliticsOnline.com

Observations and musings on Jacksonville Politics

City Hall Facing Angry Public

Jacksonville’s electorate is mad—steaming mad—over the latest news out of City Hall.  E-mails titled everything from “Taxation without Representation” (was anyone’s right to vote denied in the last City Council elections) to “Get a Clue” are flooding the mailboxes of City Hall.

A sampling of the e-mails are below:

I respectfully request, again, your good office to represent “WE THE PEOPLE” and kill the three (3) taxes being imposed on the electorate.  There were promises of no new taxes.  Please do not insult me by claiming these are fees and not taxation.

The Mayor’s office should be SHUT DOWN before any politician discusses shutting down services that we the people can not provide for ourselves.  Shut down Parks and Recreation, Senior Citizen Centers and frivolous spending before you talk about layoffs of the first police officer, firefighter or paramedic!  Shame on anyone who has lived over seventy years (70) and can not entertain themselves!

Respectfully,

Carroll Huffines

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

Tea Party Returning to Jacksonville

On July 2 at 5:30, First Coast Tea Party is planning another “Freedom Rally.”  They have asked prominent Jacksonville politicians, including City Council President Richard Clark, to attend as a VIP guest.  While the first round of “Tea Parties” was apparently directed at conservative anger towards Barack Obama (although it was unclear how “taxation without representation” gelled with a democratically-elected President), one has to wonder if news of Jacksonville’s growing deficit problems will turn the July 2 rally in a more local direction.  Judging by the speaker lineup from the last rally; however, that appears unlikely, particularly in light of the fact that one of the featured speakers was Jay Fant, a close friend and ally of Jacksonville Mayor John Peyton.

Apparently, budget deficits are only bad in Washington, DC.

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, , , , , ,

Group Says City Finances In Dire Straits

Jacksonville Community Council Inc Executive Director Skip Cramer says the groups recent study of city finances was desperately needed.  “The important role of the JCCI process of non-partisan community engagement was never more evident than in this study,” Cramer said.   “Citizens representing a wide spectrum of views and political beliefs came together over eight months, putting their own personal interests aside, to tackle some very difficult issues.”

Three decades ago, in 1977, JCCI released their first study.  It happened to be on the finances of the City of Jacksonville.  At the time, the study found the city “to be basically sound, with the exception of the underfunding of its pension plans.”  Now, thirty-five years after the release of that study, JCCI finds itself in a similar position—studying the city’s finances.  The group says that the 2009 study has identified problems that were worse than prior years.  The city is struggling with underfunded pensions and what they term the long-term effects of short-term planning by both the city and the state.

“Jacksonville is facing a financial crisis which threatens its financial sustainability,” said Study Committee Chair J.F. Bryan IV.  “[It’s] time to make some difficult decisions.”  Bryan pointed to pressing budget concerns which have been brought on by significant reduction in revenues and also raised concerns that the city’s long-term debt issue is threatening to spiral out of control.

“Business as usual cannot continue,” Bryan said, “It is no longer acceptable to finance major projects by deferring payment on them to future generations.  We have done so for far too long, ignoring the consequences of passing on debt obligations in the interest of short-term political expediency.”

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

E-Mails for Public Officials Now Online

A few days ago, Joey Marchy of Urban Jacksonville blogged about a Twitter conversation that took place between myself, a fellow JaxPoliticsOnline.com blogger and Marilyn Young, the assisting managing editor at the Times-Union.  The conversation was in regards to the reluctance of incoming council president Richard Clark to allow public access to his e-mail via the city council’s website.  Ms. Young pledged to put the question to Mr. Clark the following day in a interview that had already been scheduled with Tia Mitchell, the Times-Union’s City Hall reporter.  As we discussed this, my fellow JaxPoliticsOnline.com blogger pointed out that e-mails for many of the Mayor’s current staff members were also not available online.  The Times-Union contacted the Mayor’s Office the next day to inquire about the e-mails and  Misty Skipper, the Mayor’s Communications Director, pledged to have the city’s website updated.

I’m happy to say that the e-mails are now accessible for public review.  They can be found here (enter “publicdocs” as the user name and “public” as the password).  E-mails for participating city council members, including the incoming council president, can be found here (enter “citycpublic” as the user name and “public” as the password).

Mayor Peyton, his staff and Richard Clark are all to be commended for taking an important step in embracing transparency in Jacksonville government.

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

CTDC Rally for Repeal of Fees

The Concerned Taxpayers of Duval County Inc. (CTDC) is holding Rally for Repeal of Mayor Peyton’s three new taxes. 

Tuesday, June 9 2009 at 4:00 PM, CTDC will be in front of Jacksonville City Hall to bring attention to the necessity for immediate and permanent repeal of the ordinances authorizing the three new taxes.

~Solid Waste Fee ordinance (2007-837)
~ Stormwater Authorization Ordinance (2007-836-E) and Fee Ordinance (2008-129-E)
~ JEA Franchise Fee Authorization (2007-838)

Jacksonville City Hall is located at 117 W Duval Street Jacksonville FL 32202

Members will attend the City Council meeting and give testimony during the public comment portion of the meeting. 

Concerned Taxpayers of Duval County Inc. is a non-partisan organization whose mission is to prevent, identify, and publicize all forms of fiscal waste, extravagance, and imprudence within and by the government which impacts residents of Duval County, Florida.  Many of our members regularly attend Jacksonville City Council meetings, including committee meetings, as “watchdogs” over your money.

For more information contact Victor Wilhelm Jr. at 904 318-7208 or VLW149@gmail.com.

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

Colonial Manor/Harden Land Use and Zoning Case Resolved

Two bills are being introduced into City Council this coming week that will finally resolve (hopefully) the Colonial Manor firestorm that started when Paul Harden applied for a land use and zoning change for his brother’s property – changing it from Low Density Residential to PUD.

2009-469 entails the approval of a settlement agreement to the litigation. The agreement calls for the City to adopt a remedial amendment changing the land use category back to Low Density Residential, refund the FLUM amendment adoption application fee back to Steve Harden, and reimburse Colonial Manor residents the costs incurred in hiring experts to testify in the case. The land use change back to Low Residential Density is accomplished in 2009-470.

I’m sure the Colonial Manor residents will be happy to have this issue finally resolved.

Filed under: Jacksonville, Jacksonville City Council, , ,

Jacksonville’s Impending Pension Crisis

The pension crisis is bearing down hard on the City of Jacksonville, much like a Category 3 storm that has the potential for increasing wind speed. With a current unfunded liability in excess of $1 billion, the problem has now become an issue so large our elected officials can no longer ignore it.

The City Council formed a Special Pension Committee to make recommendations as to actions the City can take to deal with the deepening issue.  Their report, which was due to the Council President on June 2, has been pushed back to June 30.  This extension will coincide with the incoming Council Presidency of Richard Clark, at which point he will have the option to determine whether or not the committee should continue if they have not yet finished up their report.

Not surprisingly, Jacksonville is not alone.  A website entitled The Pension Tsunami gives daily headlines of cities and states dealing with pension problems from around the country.  Different governments are dealing with the problems in different ways.  One Florida city, Pensacola, made the decision to move all of their general employees to the Florida Retirement System.  This change, which went into effect on June 18, 2007, resulted in a reduction in city contributions from 50% to 9.85% for the regular class employees who are now part of the FRS.

While the FRS may be an option for Jacksonville’s general employees as well, we do not have the option of folding the police and fireman’s pension funds in the FRS because of a number of reasons, including the fact that the City receives money from both the state and federal government for the funds.  For the Police and Fire Pension Fund, the City contributes money, the members contribute some and a small contribution is also derived from court fines.  Additionally, there is roughly $10 million that is contributed each year from the state. The bulk of the money that is paid out—about 85%—comes from earnings.  Jacksonville has guaranteed an 8.4% return, something that is not feasible given the current market conditions. (The Florida Retirement System, as an aside, guarantees a return of 6.4%.)

In January, JCCI recognized the reality that the city’s needs were unsustainable at an 8.48 millage rate and suggested several steps the city could take in righting the ship.  Among those were:

• Real estate transfers—which would help meet the City’s obligations and create jobs to
renovate the real estate at the same time.
• Overfund in good years to create a cushion for bad stock market years.
• Make pension contributions on DROP participants
• Strengthen the Ordinance Code to 90% funded before benefits can be enhanced for
both pension funds.
• Greater discretion in investment options.
• Refinance the unfunded liability by stretching out obligation and/or using POB’s

Another solution is to, once again, revisit what the city is promising to new employees.  The city’s new defined contribution pension plan, which is not as good as a defined benefit plan, is still guaranteeing a return of 7%—a full 1% above most defined contribution plans.

The Police and Fire Pension Fund has also suggested several solutions, including turning over parts of Cecil Field, the Jacksonville Shipyards and building future fire stations, which would then be leased back to the City.

It’s important to realize that while real estate may be part of the solution, it will not solve all of Jacksonville’s pension problems.  For starters, real estate is not a guaranteed investment.  In fact, the California Public Employees’ Retirement System has seen their real estate portfolio shrink by $3 billion over the past few months.  They now stand to lose the entirety of a $922 million investment in a 20,000 home development that failed.

The solution, regardless of what it is, will not be painless and will likely require concessions from both the unions and the city—meaning the taxpayers.  Perhaps the most important and pressing matter is the acknowledgement from all involved parties that the city is truly on the brink of a crisis with its pension funds and the time to act is now.  If Council members haven’t yet gotten that message, they may learn it the hard way via a voter revolt in 2011.

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

Paris, Anyone?

Ah, the perks of being the incoming Council President.  Before he is even sworn in to office, Richard Clark (along with his wife, Deatra) will be whisked off to Paris, France for the Paris Air Show courtesy of the Jacksonville Aviation Authority (JAA).  It also appears that other officials, including the Mayor,  JAA interim Executive Director  Ernestine Moody Robinson,  JAA employees Richard Rossi and Rosa Beckett, and JAA Board members Cyrus Jolivette and Ron Weaver, will also be traveling to Paris.

According to a recent news article, it’s costing the State of Washington, home to the largest concentration of aerospace workers in the world, $7,100 to send one person to Paris for the air show.  (And that’s the only person the state is sending.)  I guess John Clark’s exit hasn’t impacted JAA’s propensity for taking expensive, international trips.  I also guess that it’s just not as sexy to attend the US Air, Trade, and Technology Expo (USATT), the American equivalent of the Paris Air Show, that will be held in Dayton, Ohio in July.  Sure, the USATT doesn’t have the history that the Paris Air Show has; but, it also doesn’t have the high costs and would still provide good opportunities to network with the aviation industry.

Now that Councilman Clark has joined the computer age by making his E-mails public, perhaps we can persuade him to also twitter the air show for us.  I just hope they don’t decide to take $10,000 worth of limo rides while they’re attending the Paris Air Show like some other Jacksonville folks did awhile back.

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

Council Auditor Releases Sunshine Law Compliance Report

On May 29th, the Council Auditor’s Office released its Sunshine Law Compliance Review Report of City Council.  Overall, the Council Auditor did not find any evidence of non-compliance with the Sunshine Law, but there were a few problematic issues.

1. The Council Auditor noted that nine (9) out of 52 meeting notices did not include the time to be posted and one (1) out of 52 meeting notices did not include the date and time to be posted. Section 15.103(a) of the Ordinance Code states that “the notices required shall include at a minimum … (ii)the date and time the notices are to be posted…” The date and time the notices are to be posted informs Legislative Services Division of when to post a meeting notice in order to meet the 24-hour requirement, ensuring that the public has sufficient notice to attend meetings. This finding was noted in the previous Sunshine Law Compliance report #651. It appears that the Council Director/Secretary has taken the necessary action to address and correct the issues identified in our initial report.

In addition, all 10 instances of noncompliance with this requirement occurred in May and June 2008, prior to the issuance of Report #651, and prior to the annual Sunshine Law Training provided in June 2008. Although these were technical exceptions, all 10 meetings were correctly posted at least 24 hours in advance of the meeting date.

2. The Council Auditor noted that seven (7) out of 52 meeting notices did not include the meeting
initiator. Section 15.103(a) of the Code states that “the notices required shall include at a
minimum: …the Council Member calling the meeting…” This finding was noted in the previous
Sunshine Law Compliance report #651. It appears that the Council Director/Secretary has taken
the necessary action to address and correct the issues identified in our initial report through the
use of Council Member letterhead on initiated meeting documents.

In addition, all seven instances of noncompliance with this requirement occurred in May and
June 2008, prior to the issuance of Report #651, and prior to the annual Sunshine Law Training
provided in June 2008.

3. The Council Auditor noted seven (7) out of 52 meeting minutes did not include the date of the
meeting. Section 15.106(c) states that “the minutes of every Council Public Meeting conducted
between two or more Council Members outside of the regular Council meeting or committee
meeting structure shall reflect, at a minimum: the location, date and time the meeting
commenced and adjourned…”

4. The Council Auditor noted one (1) out of 52 meeting minutes did not include the meeting
adjournment time. Section 15.106(c) of the Code states that “the minutes of every Council Public
Meeting conducted between two or more Council Members outside of the regular Council
meeting or committee meeting structure shall reflect, at a minimum: the location, date and time
the meeting commenced and adjourned…”

The Council Auditor’s Office noted one opportunity for improvement:

We recommend that the names of the Council Members and other public officials and employees
in attendance be documented in all meeting minutes. This will allow the public to clearly identify
which Council Members, public officials and employees are present at a meeting, especially if
signatures are illegible on the sign-in sheet. The original attendance sign-in sheet should still be
retained with the official meeting minutes for a complete record of all attendees.

The entire Council Auditor’s report can be viewed here.

Filed under: Jacksonville, Jacksonville City Council, , ,

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