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.