Observations and musings on Jacksonville Politics

Police Union Threatens Gate Boycott

Picture 2The news broke just before lunch—Police Union President Nelson Cuba was announcing his intentions to call for a boycott of Gate Petroleum, the family business owned by Mayor John Peyton’s father, in retaliation of the Mayor’s plan to call for pension reforms and salary freezes.  Nelson accused the mayor of threatening to take away the “basic necessities” police officers have become accustomed to.

The Fraternal Order of Police Lodge 5-30 is one of the most powerful unions in the city and home to over 2,500 officers.  The union has long wielded considerable influence in city elections, including endorsing John Peyton and many of the current members of the city council.  Nelson’s call to members of the union to “send [their] own message and hit the Mayor in his pocket” is therefore not only a monetary threat—it is something designed to discourage any council member from supporting reforms that the union does not agree to.

UNF Political Science Professor Matthew Corrigan told David Hunt of The Florida Times-Union that the move by Nelson could backfire.  Corrigan said that, while the union is well-respected in the city, they risk losing that respect by refusing to share in budget cuts.

The full Times-Union article can be found here.  For breaking news on the Jacksonville political scene, follow us on Twitter.

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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, , , , , , , , , , , ,

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!


Carroll Huffines

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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.

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Charlie Crist Raking in the Dough

The St. Pete Times reports that Gov. Charlie Crist is prepared to release some rather impressive 1st quarter fundraising numbers next month.  While governing the state, Crist has somehow managed to squeeze in plenty of fundraisers from Jacksonville to Key West.  He’ll even travel to Washington, DC at the end of June for another one hosted by such GOP heavyweights as Sen. Mitch McConnell (R-KY), Sen. John Cornyn (R-TX) and Sen. John McCain (R-AZ).

The impressive numbers will not be all that surprising; however.  As Adam Smith writes in The Times, Crist has delivered for some of the biggest donors in the state by signing bills that have loosened restrictions on developments, capped attorney’s fees in workers compensation cases and required insurance companies to pay out-of-network doctors.

An incumbent Governor always carries significant fundraising weight, but Charlie Crist takes it to an entirely different level.  It will be interesting to see what Marco Rubio, his GOP primary opponent, reports in the same time period.

Filed under: Florida, Florida Politics, , , , , , , ,

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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JCCI Prepared to release study of City Finances

Jacksonville Community Council Inc is prepared to release the results of its in-depth study on the city’s financial condition tomorrow, Wednesday, June 10 at 11:00AM.  According to JCCI Executive Director Skip Cramer, there is “in fact in a financial crisis in Jacksonville.”  Cramer says that he is not certain how aware the public is of that situation.

More information on the study can be found at JCCI’s website or visit JaxPoliticsOnline.com tomorrow afternoon for a more detailed look at the group’s findings.

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Revisiting Downtown Development

Mayor Peyton’s announcement last week that he intends to devote the last two years of his term to a renewed focus on revitalizing downtown Jacksonville has received mixed reviews.  Perhaps the most interesting aspect of his announcement was the timing of it.  The Mayor, after all, had just left the morning session of Reality Check First Coast, where one of the major topics of discussion centered on how to create a renewed focus on our city’s unique riverfront.

The Mayor’s critics point to a series of incomplete or abandoned initiatives during his term in office, including the Duval County Courthouse project, the Shipyards project, plans to reopen Cecil Field and the “Jacksonville Journey” crime prevention program, to name a few.  In addition, some have noticed that the renewed focus on downtown is strikingly similar to previous ideas floated, and quickly abandoned, not too long ago.  That aside, downtown Jacksonville and the riverfront are community treasures that deserve and desperately need the attention of city leaders.

Few cities in the southern United States can claim a history as rich and unique as Jacksonville.  The St. Johns River, or Rivière du Mai as the French originally named it, has played a central role in our development and emergence as a great city for well over a century.  We have spent millions cleaning it up, and it is therefore natural that our next step should be to expand the public’s access to it.  This goal, however, would be of marginal value without a significant revitalization of downtown Jacksonville.

Adam Hollingsworth, Mayor Peyton’s Chief of Staff, has said that the river will be at the heart of the Mayor’s plans.  “Opening up the park to the river and to the sports/entertainment complex, with a more cohesive and engaging design will create a community destination and gathering place,” he said.   “We need these up and down the river. That’s why the Mayor also talked about Friendship Park, the JEA site and future uses for the courthouse, annex and shipyards properties.

Certainly, a vibrant downtown is a key to a successful, thriving city.  The city’s downtown core and surrounding historic districts are in effect the “glue” that holds the diverse and widespread sections of this city together.  When the city’s core suffers from neglect and disrepair, we begin losing our identity as a unified community and become nothing more than a disparate collection of neighborhoods and suburbs.  Developing new and revitalizing old waterfront parks would serve as a tremendous draw in bringing people back to downtown.  The Mayor realizes that, says his chief of staff.  “He’s been inspired by the success of the Riverside Arts Market, Art Walk and many of the great events hosted week after week and year after year. It’s a density and diversity of activity we need to build on.  It will make downtown Jacksonville the place to be, prompting, we hope, additional retail and commercial activity.  Remember, downtown development is the most efficient for taxpayers.  It is designed for density and already has the infrastructure in place.”

However, how will Mayor Peyton convince the public this cause is one that he is personally committed to and will fully support through any potential opposition until it becomes reality?  This will be a major obstacle requiring the Mayor’s best leadership and persuasion skills, particularly in light of the aforementioned “Jacksonville Journey” initiative that he appeared to abandon several days after assuring community leaders of his support.  People’s memories can be very long in relation to those types of actions, and if the Mayor needs the support of many in that group, as he most certainly will, convincing them that this initiative will be different may prove to be his most daunting challenge.  Another obvious challenge considering today’s economic environment is funding.  In a time of extremely tight budgets across a wide spectrum, how will the city manage to fund public acquisition of private property along with necessary improvements?

None of these reasons should prevent the Mayor from aggressively pursuing this plan, but they do represent the challenges he will face as he works to implement this plan and others in an effort to build a legacy during his final years in office.  One of the first ways he could demonstrate his commitment to this cause would be by opening discussions on strengthening the City’s comprehensive plan and revamping the city’s zoning code in Chapter 656 of the City Ordinance Code.  The Mayor could always follow in the example of Portland or Miami by establishing an urban growth boundary.  He could push for measures that discourage greenfield growth and encourage urban infill.  These actions would send a much louder signal than a press conference ever could.

Filed under: Jacksonville, Mayor of Jacksonville, , , , , ,

American Lung Association Gives Jax an “F”

From First Coast News:

The American Lung Association has given Duval County an “F” grade in air quality.

Breaking it down, the city scores an “F” in both the number of high ozone days and in particle pollution.

The ALA released its tenth annual “State of the Air” report, compiled after reviewing data from about 1,000 counties nationwide.

The worst air quality? It’s Los Angeles. By comparison, the ozone data for Los Angeles indicates a weighted average of 96.5. A failing grade is anything over a 3.3. Jacksonville rates a 7.0.

San Bernardino and Riverside, both just east of Los Angeles, have readings of around 130.

For particle pollution, Jacksonville rates a 4.8.

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Jax Can Learn From Boynton Beach

Facing a projected $16 million deficit due to marked decreases in property tax revenues and other revenue sources, Boynton Beach is already taking steps to stem the flow of red.  City Hall is now closed on Fridays.  Among the other options under consideration: 

  • Require all city departments to submit budgets that show no increase from this year.
  • Reopen collective bargaining agreements with police and fire employees to provide the option of changing wages.
  • Research alternative employee pension plans for future new employees that would be cheaper for the city, and early retirement incentives for longer-serving employees.
  • Dissolve or reduce the size of the community redevelopment agency and absorb its tax revenue into the city’s coffers.
  • The Boynton Beach commission will continue its budget discussion next month over whether to postpone or cancel certain capital improvement projects, sell city land and change its policy on take-home vehicles for employees.

    Read the Palm Beach Post story here.

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

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