Jacksonville, FL - To some it’s an intolerable burden, to others it’s a drop in the bucket, and to still others, it’s a key point of deliberation.
The tax rate is already emerging as a key fight in this year’s budget battle.
With Jacksonville’s budget formally unveiled, it’s another year of no tax hikes put forward by the Mayor’s Office. Many of Jacksonville’s City Councilmen, however, are questioning whether that is truly the right path to be taking.
“When you take an absolutionist stance, it gets pretty dangerous. You get pushed in to a corner,” says Councilman Richard Clark.
For Clark, as well as Councilman Bill Bishop, nothing can be off the table at this stage in the debate.
“The whole financial picture at the moment is not a healthy one,” Bishop says.
This doesn’t mean that either is committed to seeing a rate hike take effect, but they tell me with a more than $60 million gap to fill in the budget, all resources need to be considered.
The main driver of that gap is the city’s pension payout. There is legislation before council right now representing the Mayor’s pension reform proposal, and the Mayor has also convened a special committee to look in to the current reform proposal. The future of the legislation is uncertain, however, because many councilmen view it as not fully addressing the problem in both the here-and-now as well as the long term.
It’s the more pressing concern for Councilman Matt Schellenberg. Schellenberg wouldn’t say specifically if he thinks a tax rate hike should be part of the current discussion, saying instead the city needs to have some serious talks with the pension board.
Outstanding questions like pension and exactly how to fill some of the extraordinary lapses put in the budget are reasons Finance Chair Greg Anderson and Councilman Ray Holt gave me for why they wouldn’t commit one way or another to having tax hikes in the discussion as well.
For still others, the reality is the tax rate will be talked about, but it should stop there.
“Inevitably, they’ll be part of the discussion, I just don’t think they should be part of the solution,” Councilman Robin Lumb tells me.
Lumb drew attention Monday when, following the Mayor’s budget presentation, he questioned whether the Mayor would veto a proposal that came to him which included a tax hike. Brown said he would.
That came as little surprise to Lumb, and as a welcome message to Councilman Jim Love.
“We shouldn’t have to raise taxes to be able to fund some things we can do,” he says.
Love tells me when he campaigned, he went door-to-door, and time and again his constituents told him they couldn’t deal with a higher tax burden. He made the promise to them that he wouldn’t support a higher rate.
Moreover, he sees a higher rate as a potential roadblock for the economic progress the city is making.
“I’m afraid if we raise taxes at this time, that it may stunt growth,” Love says.
He tells me if property values consistently declined and services continued to shoulder cuts, he would consider a hike then. He believes things are turning around, and funding should be picking up again next year, however, which means he can’t support a hike this year.
Others say they cannot support a tax hike, but have little insight at this time for how to keep funding city services without it. Councilman Don Redman tells me he won’t stand for any more hits to the Sheriff’s Office or the libraries. When asked how else to make up that funding, however, he says it’s something council will work at.
The Mayor’s veto threat came as a surprise to at least one councilman, who believes the Mayor is outside his authority. Councilman John Crescimbeni, who was Finance Chair last year, says with legislation specifically relating to the budget the Mayor cannot exercise his veto. According to Crescimbeni, Brown could choose not to sign any legislation the council sends on the tax rate, but that would merely revert the city to the rollback rate, which is the tax rate that ensures you pay the same amount in property tax this year as last year.
Under the current proposal, the Mayor does not support the rollback rate, instead opting to keep the tax rate the same which, with declining property value, has you paying less in property tax this year.
WOKV is digging in to city statute to determine whether a veto is, in fact, a viable option on the tax rate.
Overall, there are other significant questions coming from early reviews of this year’s budget. Bishop tells me he’s concerned that there is no funding for capital maintenance, meaning that few repairs will get done this year- only breeding potentially bigger and more costly repairs in the future. Anderson is looking at the $30 million lapse put in the Sheriff’s Office budget and questioning how to break it down. Council President Bill Gulliford, who also supports bringing in the tax rate discussion, says he’s troubled by the lack of detail in the budget proposal. He believes the Mayor pushed a lot of detail work on to the council. Clark says that shows him a lack of leadership on behalf of the Mayor, calling this proposal the “cheap and lazy way out.”
WOKV reached out to all of Jacksonville's 19 Councilmen for this article. This piece represents the 10 who responded within the publishing deadline.
We are currently reviewing the more than 400 page budget document released Monday. We will continue to follow the city’s debate over spending your tax dollars, and any effort to raise more of them. You can also let us know whether you support a higher tax rate in an effort not to see big cuts from city services. Be sure to weigh in on our Facebook page with your input.