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?