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Stories About The Jacksonville Budget

    All of Jacksonville’s public libraries are now open at least six days a week, as a financial boost in the City budget takes hold. WOKV reported last year that Jacksonville Public Library received funding to expand hours at nine branch locations. That funding came through clearance to hire 13 new staff members to support the expansion.IN DEPTH: Jacksonville’s $1.2 billion budget In reviewing their schedules, peak usage times, and related areas, JPL says they were able to find efficiencies, like reducing staff overlap. Through those efficiencies, they realized they could not only add days for nine branch locations- as initially planned- but also boost hours for the four regional libraries. That expansion formally went in to effect over the weekend, meaning this is the first Monday that the Argyle, Beaches, Murray Hill, San Marco, South Mandarin, West, and Willowbranch branches are open. The Mandarin and Maxville branches added Fridays to their schedule. This means all 16 branch libraries are now open Monday and Tuesday from noon through 8PM, and Wednesday through Saturday from 10AM to 6PM. They are closed on Sundays. The four regional libraries- Highlands, Pablo Creek, Southeast, and Charles Webb Wesconnett- were already open seven days a week, but now have expanded hours. They are now open Monday through Thursday from 10AM through 9PM, Friday and Saturday from 10AM through 6PM, and Sunday from 1PM through 5PM. In addition to the expanded hours, JPL has also streamlined the hours that the facilities are open, in an attempt to make access easier for you. JPL says they have hired or are in the process of hiring most of the 13 positions they were allocated.
  • As Jacksonville continues to explore how to fight back against violent crime, WOKV is getting a closer look at one of the newest systems police believe will help not only their immediate response, but their investigation that follows. IN DEPTH: Jacksonville’s Real-Time Crime Center WOKV was the first station to take you in depth on the RTCC proposal several months ago, outlining a pilot process, which the Jacksonville Sheriff’s Office was already planning to move beyond. Sheriff Mike Williams says they have 20 cameras deployed right now and are planning for 80 more before the year is up. This year’s budget allows for four hires dedicated to the RTCC, and two of those are currently on board. “It’s more about us measuring our approach to this, taking our time, make sure we’re doing it right. We don’t want to put too much in too fast, and then have to pull back. So we’re taking our time in that,” Williams says. JSO walked WOKV and our partner Action News Jax through the system, which centers on a software called CommandCentral Aware, that serves to streamline various data streams for quick and easy use by an analyst. The analyst hears dispatch audio and can see the notes from the dispatcher. The system can be set up to flag certain types of incidents, and automatically detects other useful resources- like ShotSpotter- that may be in the area. If there are cameras in that radius, they are triggered by the system, meaning it is no longer up to people to monitor potentially hundreds of camera feeds. All of that information can help first responders and the very early investigation, and an analyst can even proactively monitor the video feeds for any suspicious circumstances. But the system is also used in the long-running work. Surveillance footage can be downloaded and put in to another RTCC program which lets the analyst overlay video from different times and search for key features. If they have some suspect attributes to search for, that could mean taking two hours worth of surveillance and processing it in minutes, as opposed to needing officers to review it manually. Williams says information like this has already helped in four or five priority cases, although he declined to say which. He says having the video can be invaluable when there is not a lot of witness testimony or there are conflicting accounts, because where they would previously have to sort through the statements and make judgement calls, they now have easily accessible and searchable video that can help point their investigation in the right direction. “It gives us some very powerful analytical tools to be able to look through video, look for- again- people on bicycles, a white van, whatever it is that we’re looking for, and really shrink that time down that we’re spending on looking at and watching video kind of roll. The system will do that for us. And, again, that puts us quicker to whatever logical conclusion we’re looking for- are we catching a bad guy quicker, are we recovering a child quicker. All those things that you can imagine, you get out of something like this,” Williams says. Analysts are also able to search historically, meaning they can go back and see surveillance from an overnight incident, when the station was unmanned. Currently, the RTCC does not operate 24-hours because of the limited staffing, but Williams says they hope to be in that posture some time next year. That also means increasing from the one current work station to four overall- one more would join the station that’s already set up at the North Florida Transportation Planning Organization, and two would be at the Police Memorial Building, which is JSO’s headquarters Downtown. As they build up those hours, they’re also looking at continuing to build out the capabilities. The plan and budget is 100 cameras this year, with the early focus being pairing cameras with ShotSpotter locations, City parks, and Downtown. Williams says they could look to add even more cameras in the future, and while data would drive the decision on where those are placed, he believes areas like the 103rd Street corridor would be on the list. Once they’re more established, Williams says they will also look at adding cameras feeds that don’t belong to JSO. Internet-based cameras have the ability to feed in to the RTCC, so Williams says they’ve already been in talks with businesses about gaining access to their surveillance feeds to use if there are incidents in that area. He says they could seek the same types of arrangements with home surveillance and City cameras as well. The City is in the process of upgrading hundreds of surveillance cameras, and the proposal that’s been put forward would ensure the new cameras can network as JSO would need. The growth within JSO’s own system requires additional funding. About $3 million has been put in to this project so far according to Jacksonville Mayor Lenny Curry, and he says he’s willing to back investing in more, if it’s shown that that’s what’s needed. He says he and Williams have not yet talked about what the budget request for the next fiscal year will be, but prevention, intervention, and enforcement are all important elements that need investment in order to better public safety. IN DEPTH: Jacksonville’s $1.2 billion budget “This is another tool that’s gunna set the foundation not only for today, success today- the Sheriff talked about some of the success today- but even bigger success in the future, as we build this out. ShotSpotter, NIBIN, the way all this integrates, this is all a collective effort to have another tool to solve the problem,” he says. And while the City is using tools like this and exploring non-policing measures like Cure Violence as well, Curry says it’s important to keep traditional means strong. “We can make these investments in manpower and technology and people and after school programs and summer programs, but individual people are still making bad decisions. And so, we can’t force them to make good decisions. All we can do is invest in the enforcement to get them off the street, and then invest in the young people to make sure they make good decisions,” Curry says. The RTCC also monitors the demands on JSO overall, through mapping of calls by incident type, tracking overall call volume, and more. Curry says he knows it can be frustrating to see violence continue in the community while everything comes together, especially spikes like last weekend, when four people were killed and five others hurt in seven separate shooting incidents. “Over the long term, you’re gunna get the results that you want. You can’t throw stuff against the wall and change a strategy and your way forward every time there’s a terrible tragic event,” he says. Williams believes that within a year and a half, they will have the camera coverage and systems in place to truly maximize on the potential of the RTCC. 
  • With the aim of streamlining the overall system and aiding investigations by the Jacksonville Sheriff’s Office, the City Council is now considering a plan to spend close to $3.5 million upgrading and replacing security cameras and related systems at City buildings. WOKV previously reported that $3 million was set aside for this as part of the annual budget process. Several departments had sought upgraded equipment, and the Administration decided to form a working group to look at the need from a more broad perspective, rather than continuing to have each department handle their own procurement. Details obtained by WOKV now show that working group has recommended 1,666 new cameras from three main vendors- Lenel, Geutebruck, and Optiview. That includes new cameras mainly at public libraries, the County Courthouse, and Tax Collector branches, as well as a few other locations and some recording and storage upgrades. The overall ask totals $3,456,857, though. The $456,857 that’s over the $3 million already set aside will come from Public Parking’s budget and will focus specifically on new cameras for the Ed Ball garage and Water Street garage, as well as a new video recording server for all Public Parking locations. IN DEPTH: Jacksonville’s $1.2 billion budget Jacksonville Mayor Lenny Curry’s Chief of Staff Brian Hughes, who led up the working group on this matter, says this recommendation reduces the number of vendors being used and involves vendors that IT employees are already familiar with. He says looking at this from a more broad perspective also let them realize some cost savings, as part of negotiating a larger deal. But the biggest impact in these upgrades could instead be on the benefit it may provide to JSO. “Making sure that, if we make these investments in technology for video surveillance, that they were systems that would integrate with JSO’s programming,” Hughes says. Currently, if JSO sees City surveillance cameras that may have captured something important to an investigation, they have to work through a process of requesting that footage and then physically obtaining it, according to Hughes. He says that’s because the current camera system uses recording and storage devices that are not network- or cloud-based. In recent months, the Jacksonville Sheriff’s Office has been setting up a “Real-Time Crime Center”, which is built around software called CommandCentral Aware, which grabs many different information feeds and streamlines them to then relay to first responders and investigators. By replacing the current cameras and recording systems with ones that are compatible with wireless networking, the new infrastructure can feed in to the CommandCentral Aware system directly, meaning video that used to take hours or more to obtain can now be accessed very quickly. IN DEPTH: What is a “Real Time Crime Center” “If, let’s say, something happened on a street, any street. If they [JSO] know a government building is there and it’s a cloud-based system that they’ve logged in to their capabilities, they can- in a much faster time- access the feed and say ‘Oh, that camera faces out on to the street that we want to see if a car drove by’, or see who was walking on the street, or driving by at the moment when an incident happened,” Hughes says. The RTCC system is able to search those video feeds and synch up various streams, in an effort to create a comprehensive look at a scene and find potential evidence and leads.  These camera replacements represent the needs that were expressed to the Administration in the lead up to the last budget cycle, but not all of the cameras and infrastructure in the City. WOKV asked if the Administration’s intent is to continue replacing this tech at their end of life, or if they will look at proactively upgrading existing tech in order to further support the RTCC. “Those decisions are obviously budget impact decisions, and we try to weigh all the priorities that are coming forth in the budget process, as we prepare for Council’s consideration. But, obviously, public safety is a number one priority for the Mayor, so wherever we can find the possibility of contributing to public safety, we will. But we have to balance that, as always, with all of the other budget priorities,” Hughes says. He says this process will help guide them in the event other City departments request security camera and system upgrades in the next budget. They are looking at several different vendors because Hughes says there are unique needs that each one can address in various departments, but the core focus is that all of the upgrades will be capable of wireless- and cloud based-networking. City Council must still approve this plan in the coming weeks, although the money that’s being used has already been earmarked for these purposes. If approved, Hughes says there will be some steps that take place in procurement, but they will look to deploy the new cameras and systems as soon as possible. The RTCC is also fed by programs like ShotSpotter, which detects the sound of gunshots and alerts police, even if there is no 911 cal that’s placed. It further integrates the National Integrated Ballistic Information Network, which compares ballistic evidence against other cases. JSO recently doubled the equipment they have to process evidence through NIBIN. While the intelligence-based technology and systems continue to expand in Jacksonville, City leaders have also tried other measures to reach in to neighborhoods to address violence, through a program awarding grants to small community organizations. JSO has also been rolling out hundreds of body cameras. Despite that, we saw a spike of violence in Jacksonville this past weekend, with at least seven shootings leaving four people dead and five others hurt. WOKV will continue to press City leadership for insight on what kind of returns these investments are getting.
  • With funding for the Jacksonville Zoo and Gardens’ Master Plan now in motion, WOKV is learning more about when you will start to see the changes. As part of the City of Jacksonville’s annual budget process, a plan was approved to borrow $5 million each of the next five years, with the Zoo matching that amount in private donations, and all of the money dedicated to the ten-year Zoo Master Plan. While the total $50 million will not cover the entire tab, Zoo Executive Director Tony Vecchio says he was satisfied and excited to see the City sign on to the funding. “We’ve been working on it so hard, for so long, for it to finally come together,” he says. FULL COVERAGE: Jacksonville’s $1.2 billion City budget WOKV has learned from the Zoo that the first project under the Master Plan that is already in motion is a $3 million overhaul of the parking area. Planning is already well underway, with construction expected to start in then next couple of months. Vecchio says it’s important to start with parking, because as the Zoo has grown in popularity, so has the traffic to get in and congestion in the parking lots. “I don’t want people to start their visit here with a negative experience, so being able to fix that from the very start is really exciting,” he says. FULL COVERAGE: In-depth look at the Jacksonville Zoo and Gardens Master Plan They are reworking their retention ponds, to create a water feature at the entrance point to the Zoo. There will be an entrance bridge over that water, which funnels cars on to a landscaped lane that encourages cars to continue moving toward the front of the lot to park- near the main Zoo entrance, which is also being moved under the Master Plan. Traffic can navigate off the main drag and in to the various rows to park, as well. This new central flow is aimed at not only making traffic more streamlined, but improving your safety, because you’ll now be walking with the flow of most of the traffic. The lots themselves are being repaved and marked, and about one hundred new spots are being added as well. The exception is Lot C, where they won’t be paving everything, but they will be more clearly marking spaces, in order to ensure the parking lot can be used in an orderly manner, even if there is no attendant. The parking overhaul is expected to take inside of a year to complete. A few months after construction on the parking begins, Vecchio says they start work on the new entrance. The main gate and the education center are being flipped, under the Master Plan. The intent is to have a more centrally located main entrance, which creates two possible “loops” through the Zoo, as opposed to the current set-up, which requires a long walk to get to the end. The new entrance will have a restaurant and gift shop, as well as admissions area. Tandem with that project is adding a new entrance exhibit, which will be “Manatee River”. The exhibit will highlight the species, while also showcasing the work that’s done at the Zoo’s Manatee Critical Care Center, which is not open to the public. The Center cares for and rehabilitates manatees until they can be released back in to the wild. Two of the manatees currently in the Center- Percy and MJ- have been there more than a year, but could be released as soon as next month, according to the Zoo. The exhibit will feature a long-stay manatee or one that can’t be released back in the wild, in a natural setting. The new education center, when it’s moved, will also serve as an event space. It will overlook the to-be moved and rebuilt lion exhibit, which will be “wellness-inspired”, meaning the lions will have a lot of features that allow them to climb or otherwise entertain themselves, to ensure they’re healthy mentally and emotionally, as well as physically. The Zoo’s “Range of the Jaguar” and “Land of the Tiger” are other big cat exhibits that have “wellness-inspired design”. The new “Great Apes Loop” in the African Forest embraces that as well. “We want our animals to thrive and be happy, and we’re using that philosophy as we design our new exhibits,” Vecchio says. Vecchio says they’re doing everything they can to keep the impact on you minimal, including planning construction around high-traffic months, looking at phased approaches, and more. “We want every day to be a great experience at the Zoo. We don’t want to say, ‘Well, yeah, you’re having a crummy time today, but come back in a year because it’s going to be better’. We intend it to be a great experience every day, so we’re very careful about how we time construction and the logistics of what’s going to be closed,” he says. There is a lot involved in this Master Plan beyond this first phase as well- a new attraction, and overhaul of “Wild Florida”, the addition of an “Orangutan Reserve”, a flex exhibit that can feature different animals, a new “Nature Play Zone” outside of the main gate to use for education and programs targeting at-risk youth, and more. “Hold on to your hats. It’s gunna be an exciting ten years here at the Zoo,” Vecchio says.
  • More ambulances will soon be on the streets of Jacksonville, in an effort to ensure the fastest possible response times to emergencies across the city. Under the current budget for the City of Jacksonville, four additional Jacksonville Fire and Rescue Department rescue units- or ambulances- were funded. WOKV has confirmed JFRD plans to get these units in service next month, and they’re hope to grow the force even more in the future. IN DEPTH: Jacksonville’s $1.2 billion City budget One of the rescue units will be attached to the new Fire Station 61 off Collins and Old Middleburg in Oakleaf, to address what JFRD Division Chief of Rescue David Castleman calls a “gaping area” that’s not currently directly served. That unit will initially locate in another station, then in a few months they will move to a temporary portable station that’s being built, until the permanent station is up and running. Three more rescue units will be added to existing fire stations- Station 44 on Western Way in Baymeadows, Station 17 on Huron Street in Woodstock, and Station 37 on Busch Drive on the Northside. “The four units that we’re going to be putting in service are the ones that we’ve identified in the areas that have the greatest need for coverage,” Castleman says. In Woodstock, as an example, Castleman says their existing units have been “taxed” responding to a recent spike of shootings. On the Northside, he says the area is so expansive, that they face challenges in getting response times where they want them to be. “Response times and transport times are critical these days, with strokes, with heart attacks, with trauma. Getting people to definitive care i s extremely important,” he says. In the zones that don’t currently have a rescue unit, available units from adjacent areas are dispatched when there is a call. Not only does this mean potentially longer response times, but it can create a domino effect, when a call comes in to a zone that has sent resources to another area. “90% of our day-in-day-out call volume is calls for emergency medical services, so the rescues are imperative,” Castleman says. These new ambulances will mean 53 active rescue units across Jacksonville. That leaves five fire stations without a rescue unit, according to Castleman. One of those- Station 48 on Blount Island- has a historically low call volume and is served well by the rescue unit at Station 40 on Heckscher Drive. Another- Station 9 on Main Street across from the Evergreen Cemetery- has a rescue unit a mile away at Station 15 off Pearl. He says they hope to get the remaining three funded in the next budget year- Station 11 on Main Street north of Downtown, Station 12 around San Marco, and Station 41 in Neptune Beach. “For us to be able to serve the community the way we should, and to meet the needs of all of the community who live throughout Jacksonville, there needs to be a  rescue in every fire station,” Castleman says. Moving forward, he says all new fire stations will stand up with a rescue unit. The Mayor’s Office tells WOKV that there has already been discussion about this funding request, and these units will get “very strong consideration” in the Fiscal Year 2020 budget. Castleman says they plan to bring the units online next month because that’s when a recruit class with around 30 personnel who will ultimately staff the units gets hired. Other JFRD personnel will staff the units while those recruits go through training, and then the existing personnel will be promoted. They’re also currently working through the channels of appropriating all the budgeted funds for outfitting the rescue units and personnel, through a bill that’s currently before the Jacksonville City Council.
  • Jacksonville Zoo and Gardens members will see their annual fee rise in the new year. Membership costs are going up $25 across-the-board beginning January 1st, to generate more funds to support Zoo operations, including salaries, animal food, and related areas. The increase will also allow JZG to put more money toward conservation- $5 per membership, instead of the $1 they do currently. General admission is not changing. “Our memberships haven’t been increased in years and years and years, and so we’re playing a little catch up,” says JZG Membership and PR Supervisor JJ Vitale. Vitale says, along with the price increase, they’re restructuring what memberships look like. Currently, she says there are a lot of different plans available. You will be able to still get all the same benefits, but in a more streamlined way. “It’s going to be an individual, a one-adult family, or a family. From there, we’re kind of doing an a la carte option,” she says. Those options will include adding a named or unnamed guest to your membership. JZG members will also be able to get non-members tickets for a reduced rate of $10, which will make it more affordable to bring a large group of friends or family. Vitale says they are also adding some more events and activities, to try to make up for the increased rate. That includes new member-only events like Painting with Penguins and Breakfast with the Bunny, a book club for children, and new partnerships with local institutions that will be reflected through your membership card. “Better connect our members to our mission, and making it fun while we do it,” she says. The revenue from this boost will specifically go toward Zoo operations, but it comes as JZG is separately fundraising for their Master Plan. The City of Jacksonville has committed to matching $5 million each of the next five years for donations the Zoo can bring in to support this multi-year program. WOKV brought you an in-depth look at the projects involved, which range from improved exhibits to new features. Viltale says some of the early projects will include improving parking and relocating the Zoo’s entrance to be more central on the overall trail.
  • Aiming to provide a more convenient option for you, while potentially bringing in more revenue for the office, the Duval Tax Collector’s Downtown branch is now accepting applications to receive or renew a concealed weapons license. Tax Collector Jim Overton says some 50 other counties in Florida already offer that service, and he feels it is time Duval County catches up. “Absolutely a convenience for the citizens of Jacksonville, so they don’t have to go to the state or some other county,” Overton says. In Northeast Florida, Baker, Clay, Nassau, and St. Johns County Tax Collectors all accept these applications, according to the Florida Department of Agriculture and Consumer Services. Before the Duval County Tax Collector started on Thursday, Jacksonville applications had to be submitted at the Regional Office for the FDACS. Overton says they’ve already had some residents take advantage of the offering.  During the City’s annual budget process, the Tax Collector’s Office had sought the ability to hire more staff to specifically deal with concealed carry applications, in order to ensure they didn’t stretch existing staff too far. Instead, the City Council increased the Office’s employee cap by two, but didn’t fund the positions. At that time, the Office said they hoped to be able to generate revenue through the service to cover the cost for those two employees. IN DEPTH: Jacksonville’s City budget Chief Deputy Tax Collector Sherry Hall tells WOKV they have been able to temporarily fund the positions using money from a few vacancies in the department. While that is a temporary solution- until the positions are filled- she says they hope that once they start generating revenue from the service, they can fully appropriate the funds for the positions. Hall estimated during the budget process that they could hopefully see more than $80,000 annually from adding the concealed carry licensing services. Because of how they’re rolling it out, Overton says the new addition will not affect wait times for any other services. “We stood this up as a separate thing, so it won’t affect any of the other operations,” he says. You can submit an application and get fingerprinted at the Tax Collector’s Downtown branch at 231 E. Forsyth Street from 8AM through 4PM on weekdays. Overton plans to roll this out to other branches in the new year. You can make an appointment online to reduce your wait time, but walk ins are also accepted. You must bring a picture ID, certificate of training, and payment to your appointment. If you are doing a renewal, Overton says you will get your permit that day. If you are applying, he says they send the information to the State, so you will get your license in the mail weeks after.
  • Duval County students will soon have better access to mental health therapeutic services.  The number of therapists providing services for local students is increasing, as are the number of schools who have a dedicated therapist, following boosts in both local and state funding.  One batch of changes is for the “Full Service Schools” program. It began in 1991, and connects students and families with therapeutic, health, and social services by creating “hubs”, from which therapists serve schools. Leading up to now, there were 26 therapists serving 75 schools.  Through the Duval County Public School District, the City of Jacksonville, and private funding, that therapist-to-school ratio is being improved to 26 therapists over 57 schools, meaning each of the existing therapists has fewer schools and students to manage. Tuesday night, the Duval County School Board further voted to approve a $2,321,000 million expansion of their contract with the United Way of Northeast Florida for the FSS program, to add 36 more therapists to cover an additional 63 schools. That funding comes from state dollars, as part of new school safety laws passed in response to the Parkland mass shooting.  In all, this means FSS will soon cover 120 schools with 52 therapists.  “Have helped make possible an opportunity for us to expand mental health services to every child in the whole District,” says United Way of Northeast Florida President and CEO Michelle Braun.  United Way of Northeast Florida manages the contracted providers under this program, which are currently Jewish Family Community Services, Child Guidance Center, Daniel Memorial, Children’s Home Society, and Family Foundations.  Additionally, the “Full Service Schools PLUS” program is growing. This started as a pilot in 2015, but those involved say they’ve seen huge success. Under this initiative, there is one therapist assigned to one school, due to “Early Warning Indicators” like low attendance and high discipline rates. Until now, there were 12 schools in this program, but $1.7 million in additional funding from the City of Jacksonville’s new budget- which effectively doubled last year’s allocation- will add 28 more sites. That means 40 total schools will each have a dedicated therapist, with the program managed directly through Jacksonville’s Kids Hope Alliance.  “It’s a true collaboration, a true partnership, and it will pay huge dividends for our students,” says School Board Member Ashley Smith Juarez.  IN DEPTH: Jacksonville’s $1.2 billion City budget The total budget for FSS and FSS PLUS was $5.5 million in the prior fiscal year, between the City, DCPS, private donations- largely the United Way- and Medicaid billing. That is now up to around $7.2 million, according to KHA.  While the focus is increased mental health services for students, there is also after-school tutoring, mentoring, family counseling, health services, and more. School Board Member Becki Couch says the expansion is especially important for some of the more rural areas, like where she represents.  “We’re able to reach communities that really have very little access,” she says.  A student can be referred for counseling from anyone, including non-school personnel like family. The counselor vets the request, then obtains consent from a parent. Services under the programs are handled during school hours, in a dedicated office on the campus.  Data obtained by WOKV shows the number of referrals for FSS mental health counseling and social services has gradually risen each of the last three years, which the District credits to heightened awareness and a move that started a few years ago toward improving the program.  “I want to say a tremendous thank you to those partners who knew at that time and in that moment that there was a growing need and an acute need for more mental health services,” Smith Juarez says.  Since then, she says they’ve seen wait times for services fall, and she expects improvements to continue as more resources are put in.  FSS data provided by the District further shows that nearly all of the students who go through counseling see improved overall functioning, when rated with an assessment used in the state. Some of the measured gains in the last year include students going through treatment and then advancing to the next grade, or a parent or guardian finding an improvement in behavior.  Therapists under this program must be at least a therapist or clinician with a Master’s degree in mental health counseling, social work, psychology, or marriage and family counseling, with all appropriate licenses, according to the contract between DCPS and the United Way of Northeast Florida. They go through background screenings as well.  Anyone who thinks a student needs help can make a referral, and there are some services available for certain communities as well. DCPS has a full list of those locations and referral instructions on their website.  DCPS says their understanding is that the State funding will be recurring, allowing them to continue this high level of service. The City and DCPS dollars have likewise been baked in to the respective budgets, at this point. DCPS says they continue working with partners to ensure this program will be sustainable.
  • From the outset of Jacksonville’s budget process weeks ago, City leaders have said their priority continues to be public safety. Just ahead of Tuesday night’s final vote approving that $1.2 billion spending plan for the upcoming fiscal year, the City Council put an exclamation point on that priority, by adding even more funding toward a new program trying to stop violence at the community level.  The Council approved a bill to take $64,550 from leftover Council Contingency funds, to use toward the “Stop the Violence” small grant program. This is run under the Kids Hope Alliance, and allows small community organizations and faith-based groups to apply for grants of up to $10,000 for anti-violence efforts. The program is designed to better empower those who are already on the ground and entrenched in communities that are dealing with crime.  “We feel really strongly that allowing grassroots organizations- particularly if they’re small churches or community-based organizations- opportunity to get funding is unprecedented for the City. And it gives us tremendous opportunity to leverage these groups that are working with our young children and provide them with resources to continue to do that in a material way, and we think that’s going to have a tremendous impact on reducing violence in some of our at-hope neighborhoods,” says KHA CEO Joe Peppers. That $64,550 is being added to another $350,000 that is being put toward that program under the City’s budget- $50,000 as part of KHA’s annual budget and $300,000 that the Council Finance Committee is committing, out of funds that were discovered through the budget review process. When combined with $50,000 committed by Mayor Lenny Curry, from executive reserves, the program stands to have a total of $464,550 for the next fiscal year.  “These grassroots organizations that provide these services, that’s who’s going to help us make a difference. These are the organizations that we often see crying out ‘let us help’. We’re giving them the opportunity to help us now, and I expect results of it,” says Councilman Reggie Gaffney, who was a driving force behind this program. Peppers says they are still finalizing the exact process for distributing the grants, but he believes it will be a first-come first-served approach, with each grant award based on the merit of the program. He says there will be rigorous standards enforced to ensure the dollars are being used appropriately, in line with the other contracts they manage. He hopes to begin accepting applications by mid-next week, with funds being disbursed by mid- to late-October. They will continually review applications until all funds are exhausted. That is just one portion of the overall City budget that’s now been approved unanimously by the 19-member Council, which WOKV has covered extensively through the last few weeks.  IN DEPTH: Jacksonville’s City budget  “City Council just passed my budget. It was unanimous. 4 for 4 unanimous. Together we have produced four budgets that demonstrate a commitment to public safety, supporting kids and families, investing in infrastructure, and economic development leading to job creation. There is always more work to do, but these four budgets have helped Jacksonville be positioned for a prosperous future,” tweeted Curry, following the Council’s vote. On the anti-violence front, the budget also funds the startup of the “Real Time Crime Center”. This is an initiative that will bring different data lines and systems JSO has access to- from dispatch calls to ShotSpotter- to filter through a uniform system to better streamline information to first responders. That can then be synched with surveillance, footage, historical crime data, and more to provide a more comprehensive view of the scene, and can further track crime trends.  Closely tied to public safety, an expansion of the opioid treatment pilot program is included, as is more than $42,000 for grief counseling, trauma care, and burial costs for children exposed to or victims or violent crime; $120,000 to bring housing assistance and mental health services to the Sulzbacher Center; $3 million to replace and upgrade City security cameras; more therapists in Duval Schools; and much more.  To provide children and the community at large a safe place to spend some recreational time, this budget expands library hours, to ensure every branch is open at least six days a week, with some locations open all seven days. It also moves forward plans for an Oceanway library.  Public Works is another big spend, from an increase in litter cleanup services, to an additional $360,000 vacuum truck to drain inlets and pipes. There’s a large Capital Improvements Program, which includes everything from a Downtown dog park and repairs to historic African American cemeteries, to big investments in maintaining the Prime Osborn Convention Center. There is road paving, sidewalk repairs, bridge and dock work, and much more. In the CIP, $3 million will start replacing portions of the Northbank bulkhead. This comes as the result of “growing” and “more problematic” bulkhead failures that have been taking place since Irma, as characterized by City Councilwoman Lori Boyer.  $12.5 million for taking down the Hart Bridge ramps in Downtown is also included. WOKV has taken you in depth on the reason behind the project and other funding the City is still working to line up, but this portion matches $12.5 million from the Florida Department of Transportation, which keeps the project in motion.  Both the Jacksonville Zoo and Gardens and UF Health are getting multi-year capital improvement plans. For the Zoo, it’s $25 million over five years- which will be annually matched with private donations- to implement their Master Plan. That includes new and upgraded exhibits, a more central entrance, an added attraction, and much more. UF Health will receive $120 million over six years to repairs, maintenance, and improvements on the City-owned buildings.  The budget process further raised big questions the Council has looming in the future.  A two-part WOKV investigation found the nonprofit running the Jacksonville Equestrian Center had some short-term funding problems to get through this fiscal year, and now faces an even bigger question on how it will be funded in the future because the trust fund that has been used for the last few years has run down. The City Council will have to consider other funding options in the future, as the nonprofit works to continue to turn around the venue to generate more revenue.  One of the biggest questions that loomed over this budget process overall is a November ballot initiative on an additional homestead exemption. If voters pass the measure, it will mean a break for their property tax bill, but an estimated $27 million hole in next year’s City budget. Because of that, the Council highly scrutinized requests to boost anything that required recurring funding- they did not want to commit to funding that in the future, with that possible hole looming.  Still another future question that was highlighted through the budget process is how the City will recoup the cost of JSO providing school security services at Duval County schools. A new state law requires enhanced security, but left it on districts to decide the exact program and fund the majority of that. JSO is supplementing DCPS, while they work to train a sufficient number of new hires to cover the demand- and it’s not yet clear when and how JSO will be repaid for that. The budget did not raise the property tax rate, although with increasing property value you will likely see a higher property tax bill, even with the flat rate.
  • The Jacksonville Equestrian Center sits at a critical time for determining how it’s funded in the future, but it’s also at a turning point for realizing the potential of what the property can be.  “This is the crown jewel of the Westside. We’re very proud of it, and we hope people will come out and enjoy it,” says Northeast Florida Equestrian Society Board Chair Peggy Fuller.  WOKV brought you an in depth look Monday at the cost challenges that have beset the venue in recent years. The nonprofit running it, Northeast Florida Equestrian Society, believes they are on the road to turning that around, once they get their new covered arena open and in use.  It’s just one of several projects and programs designed to not only start cranking up the venue’s use, but better connect it with the community.  Covered arena  The Equestrian Center’s contract says the first priority of NFES is adding a covered outdoor arena. That offers many different opportunities when partnered with the main arena- from a large show running more efficiently with multiple spaces, to a large show expanding further because of the additional space, to the ability to run two compatible shows at once in the two separate covered spaces. Because the new covered ring will be open air on the sides, it will also let the Equestrian Center increase programming in the summer, since the main arena now does not have air conditioning.  For NFES, this gives them a space to host smaller community events, while also positioning them to be more competitive for large, national competitions.  “To make this facility something that’s a destination, and people are proud of. This is a draw to Jacksonville, that this is somewhere somebody wants to come,” says NFES past Board Chair Joanne Connell.  IN DEPTH: Jacksonville Mayor Lenny Curry’s $1.2 billion City budget proposal In fiscal year 16-17, the City Council committed $1.3 million for a covered ring, and NFES has secured a donation to match that, as part of a naming rights agreement for the space. The contract amendment between the City and NFES initially outlined the project’s completion as October 1, 2018.  To date, the construction has not actually started.  During recent City budget hearings, Parks, Recreation and Community Services Department Director Daryl Joseph said part of the reason NFES didn’t meet revenue projections is because those were put together with the expectation the new covered arena would be up and running. The City blames the delay on a number of factors, including the weather, hurricane and project design. NFES says the delay was driven in large part from the City- they took months to review and approve the donor match agreement, and once that was done, NFES says City codes had changed, so they had to deal with design changes and code variances.  The City confirms the funding for the project is still allocated, and it’s believed the projection for the total project cost will still hold, despite the delay. The project timeline has also received a one-year extension, following a City Council vote last week.  The plan is to take two existing outdoor rings and combine them in to one new 270x270 sq ft ring, that has footing to match the interior arena. A 300x300 sq ft cover will hang over that ring and will connect to the existing arena, with a buffer space in between the two buildings serving as a livestock holding area.  Fuller says they already have events that have committed to expanding, once the covered arena is in place. They’re also hoping it will lead to a major show anchoring in Jacksonville, meaning they schedule the same weekend here every year. NFES is not yet booking events for the venue, because of the delays that have taken place with construction. They’re now hoping to be able to break ground soon, with completion of the project late Spring or early Summer.  With how the shows are booked- several years in advance- Fuller says it could take that long to see the full benefit, but the patience will be worth the wait.  Other improvements on site  The long-range plan has even more improvements for the site, both in infrastructure and offerings. NFES believes the next phase should be the support around the new covered ring.  With 423 stalls currently spread across four barns, NFES hopes to start selling out more, once the new venue creates more demand. If the demand increases enough, they could potentially build even more barns in the future, which feeds a primary revenue source for them- stall rentals.  GALLERY:Jacksonville Equestrian Center With expanding space for the horses, comes the need for their human counterparts to go somewhere. NFES hopes to add more RV rental sites in the future, to achieve that.  The contract “Work Plan” between the City and NFES says the nonprofit will refurbish barns, stalls, camping and RV spots, trails, parking, and landscaping. The Plan also calls for new bathroom and shower facilities near barns three and four, improved pavilions, additional livestock pens, covered bleachers, and much more. The Equestrian Center Master Plan includes a lot of this, and NFES is already separately working on more ring space, which is being funded by private donations.   There are also on-site revenue services that are growing. They would like to expand the therapeutic equipment they have for horses, which could then be rented by horse owners at events. NFES further tells WOKV they also may have a donor lined up for a farrier space on-site, whereas any farrier or vet who provides services for events currently has to do work in the stalls.  Equine Therapy program  Another hallmark of the Equestrian Center’s future is a planned “state of the art” equine therapy program.  Fuller says they have a sponsor that allows them to start the program by partnering with an accredited therapy group, which brings horses to the Equestrian Center and performs the services. They hope to ultimately be able to build a separate structure on the property to house the program full time.  “Our theory is start small and build slowly, and then we’ll be successful. If you dive in, I think, all at once, you sometimes overstep. We want to start small and build,” she says.  The program provides both physical and mental therapy services, for everyone from veterans to people with autism.  “It’s exciting now that this has been actually realized, assisted therapy has been realized as a true therapy. And we want to be involved in that,” Fuller says.  Connell says they’re especially proud of being able to aid the military community through this service, because of the origin of the land, which used to be with Cecil Field.  Diverse programming  The Equestrian Center is only one of the facilities in that area. Taye Brown Regional Park includes the Equestrian Center, the Cecil Recreation Complex’s Aquatic Center, and the ballfields. There are also miles of trails- including ones you can take a horse on- and a golf course nearby.  The contract between the City and NFES talks about partnering with those other venues to create “destination package deals”. NFES says they absolutely see the surrounding attractions as benefiting them, in creating more appeal in the immediate area.  The “Work Plan” further speaks about not only expanding equine-related events, but other community and diverse activities.  “A big boost at other equestrian centers is the development and ownership of ‘downtime’ nonrated shows that will fill low-demand calendar dates,” the contract says.  NFES believes the therapy program can ultimately be something that helps program the Equestrian Center every day, because it will run on week days, when large shows and events typically aren’t taking place. They’ve also already grown substantially in attracting a range of events. From dog agility shows, to RV shows, FDOT Career Day, concerts, rodeos, and much more, NFES has focused on bringing in something for everyone.  “Most of our events are free and open to the public. There’s no parking fee, there’s no entrance fee, and we want people to come, encourage people to come and see what we have our here,” Fuller says.  Marketing  The City also continues to explore how to help promote the venue.  In recent action recommended by the Tourist Development Council and approved by the City Council, guidelines were created to establish criteria for awarding all tourism development grants, including those used for marketing and special events. Part of that included setting aside $20,000 specifically for promotion the Equestrian Center, separate from the $800,000 in Special Event Grants that cover other events and City venues. According to the City, this funding will be used specifically to lure events that draw participants from outside of the area, and for advertising events at the venue.  The grant money was pulled from the overall special events fund because of the unique nature of the Equestrian Center and events being recruited. As such, the TDC and Visit Jax wanted it to be handled differently. Jacksonville Equestrian Center Executive Director Tim Jones says the core problem is that the standard grants are being measured by hotel night, but that’s not the metric that most accurately represents the economic impact they have, since many participants stay in RVs or scatter at hotels that accommodate dogs or other animals they travel with. Instead, he envisions something that gives more weight to stall nights, for these new grants.  “It’s a City facility that attracts tourists, and we [the TDC] thought there was an opportunity to help them bump the level of their game, if they could offer some grants to some of the people to bring in the kind of ‘National Championship of X’, as opposed to just having the regional competitions,” said City Councilwoman Lori Boyer, during the TDC’s recent budget hearing.  The funding is coming from the City’s tourism development tax, as part of the TDC budget.  Looking ahead  NFES understands that not everyone is familiar with- or necessarily even in support of- the Equestrian Center, but they’re continuing to work to change that. Highlighting that this is a Better Jacksonville Plan project, Fuller says voters supported it ahead of its construction in 2004, and now there is a need to maintain it, and an opportunity to program it to its fullest.  NFES is committed to continuing to educate the City Council and community at large on the events and opportunities the venue holds. With most of the events at the Equestrian Center being free and open to the public, they’re hoping everyone takes the time to visit- not just those passionate about horses and equestrian events.  In the coming year, the City of Jacksonville will closely consider how to subsidize this venue in the future. NFES says they will closely partner in those discussions, and continue to prove why they believe this is a worthwhile investment.  WOKV continues to track how Jacksonville Mayor Lenny Curry and the City Council are spending your tax dollars, with the final vote on the City’s $1.2 billion budget proposal coming next week.

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  • Jacksonville Fire and Rescue said multiple people were injured in a morning crash involving a semi truck and a van on I-295 southbound near Roosevelt.  According to JFRD, none of the injuries appeared to be serious. Traffic is at a standstill leaving Orange Park, and traffic across the Buckman Bridge northbound is delayed.  Listen to First Alert Traffic updates every 6 minutes during Jacksonville’s Morning News 104.5 FM. 
  • Northeast Florida Representatives are reacting to the Special Counsel findings of no evidence of collusion between the Trump campaign and Russia.  The Special Counsel states that ‘while this report does not conclude that the President committed a crime, it also does not exonerate him’.  Republican John Rutherford said it is shameful that the Special Counsel was unwilling to clearly state that the president did not obstruct justice despite finding no evidence whatsoever that the president acted with ‘corrupt intent’.   Senator Marco Rubio indicated he’s glad that the concluded there was no collusion, and jabbed Democrats for their reaction. 
  • Here is the letter Barr sent to leaders in Congress after he received the results of special counsel Robert Mueller’s investigation into possible Russian Collusion during the 2016 presidential election. Dear Chairman Graham, Chairman Nadler, Ranking Member Feinstein, and Ranking Member Collins: I write to notify you pursuant to 28 C.F.R. 600.9(a)(3) that Special Counsel Robert S. Mueller III has concluded his investigation of Russian interference in the 2016 election and related matters. In addition to this notification, the Special Counsel regulations require that I provide you with “a description and explanation of instances (if any) in which the Attorney General” or acting Attorney General “concluded that a proposed action by a Special Counsel was so inappropriate or unwarranted under established Departmental practices that it should not be pursued.” 28 C.F.R. 600.9(a)(3). There were no such instances during the Special Counsel’s investigation. The Special Counsel has submitted to me today a “confidential report explaining the prosecution or declination decisions” he has reached, as required by 28 C.F.R. 600.8(c). I am reviewing the report and anticipate that I may be in a position to advise you of the Special Counsel’s principal conclusions as soon as this weekend. Separately, I intend to consult with Deputy Attorney General Rosenstein and Special Counsel Mueller to determine what other information from the report can be released to Congress and the public consistent with the law, including the Special Counsel regulations, and the Department’s long-standing practices and policies. I remain committed to as much transparency as possible, and I will keep you informed as to the status of my review. Finally, the Special Counsel regulations provide that “the Attorney General may determine that public release of” this notification “would be in the public interest.” 28 C.F.R. 600.9(c) I have so determined, and I will disclose this letter to the public after delivering it to you. Sincerely, William P. Barr Attorney General
  • A New Jersey man accused of killing his wife, throwing her body in their pool and then driving to Applebee’s for food to set up his alibi has taken a plea deal in the case, prosecutors said.  Norman F. Long, 53, of Woolwich Township, pleaded guilty earlier this month to first-degree aggravated manslaughter, according to NJ.com. The plea deal struck with Gloucester County prosecutors requires Long to serve at least 85 percent of his sentence before he becomes eligible for parole. Prosecutors are recommending a 15-year sentence, NJ.com reported. As part of the agreement, charges of tampering with evidence and obstruction of justice have been dropped.  Long is scheduled for sentencing May 3.  >> Read more trending news Gloucester County prosecutors said at the time of Long’s arrest that the body of his wife, Michelle Long, 47, was pulled from the swimming pool at their home on June 17, 2017. Norman Long claimed that he had gone to pick up dinner and came home to find that his wife had apparently drowned in the pool. “According to an investigator’s affidavit of probable cause, Norman Long and neighbors were at poolside when the investigator arrived at 8:35 p.m. (that night), performing cardiopulmonary resuscitation on Michelle Long,” a 2017 news release from prosecutors said. “Norman Long ‘became combative’ while CPR was being administered and had to be restrained, the neighbors said.” A small dog was also found dead in the water.  Michelle Long’s autopsy showed that she had not drowned but instead died of blunt force trauma. Her death was ruled a homicide, prosecutors said.  Investigators spent just over six weeks investigating Michelle Long’s killing before arresting Norman Long on Aug. 1, 2017. He was charged with first-degree murder for “using physical force to cause blunt head and neck trauma” to his wife, the news release said. “It was a violent attack by him,” Gloucester County prosecutor Sean Dalton said during Norman Long’s first court appearance in August, NBC10 in Philadelphia reported. “The medical examiner found that there was bruising on her hands, consistent with defensive wounds. There was a struggle.” He was also charged with concealing evidence by “disposing (of) paper towels containing the blood of Michelle Long in the kitchen trashcan” and obstructing justice by throwing the blood-stained towels away and putting his wife’s body in the swimming pool, prosecutors said.  According to NJ.com, investigators believe Michelle Long may have been planning to leave her husband of 15 years. The last search she did on her computer, just minutes before her death, was a search for houses.  “This is what happened as a result of him finding out about that,” Dalton said during Long’s August appearance, NBC10 reported.  A timeline of the crime given in court last August alleged that Norman Long said his wife was on the computer when he left between 6:30 and 7 p.m. to pick up dinner at Applebee’s, NJ.com reported then. Prosecutors argued, however, that the timeline did not correspond with evidence. Michelle Long’s search for homes ended at 6:11 p.m., prosecutors said.  Surveillance footage from a nearby business’s security camera showed Norman Long driving by a carwash and then heading back home before going to Applebee’s, where the restaurant’s own footage shows him inside from 7:15 to 7:37 p.m., NJ.com reported. He against drove by the carwash headed for home at 7:47 p.m. The 911 call reporting Michelle Long’s death was received at 8:02 p.m. Norman Long was taken to a state psychiatric hospital for evaluation following his Aug. 1 arrest because he was expressing suicidal thoughts, prosecutors said.  NBC10 reported last year that the defendant’s first court appearance was delayed because he had an emotional breakdown in the jail. Sources told the news station Long physically fought being removed from his cell and had to be forcibly taken to his hearing. He was quiet once he was in the courtroom, the news station reported.  Michelle Long’s daughter, Brittany Maguire, said at the time of her stepfather’s arrest that her family was torn apart. “She was definitely the best mom, and she did not deserve this at all,” Maguire said during a news conference attended by NJ.com reporters. “We are all broken without her.” Since Michelle Long’s death, her mother and her daughters have partnered with a company called ROAR for Good, which makes a wearable personal safety device that, if activated by the touch of a button, shares the user’s location via text to a previously chosen list of contacts. It is designed to let people know if a loved one is in danger.  It can also emit a high-frequency alarm to scare away assailants, NJ.com reported. The family sells the devices, inscribed with Long’s nickname, “Chel,” on a website they created called guardianangelchel.com.  “We wanted to direct our energy into something positive, meaningful, and honor my daughter's life and leave a lasting legacy for her,' her mother, Susan Direso, told NJ.com last year. 'Chel was my joy, my little girl, and to lose her in such a brutal way broke my heart forever. This mission to help at-risk victims gives us a purpose to turn our tragedy into a meaningful project.”
  • As JEA considers several different designs and locations for a new Downtown headquarters, WOKV has learned they’re trying to build the facility without changing your rates. To do that, they may take on some big real estate sales. JEA has put together a “Real Estate Optimization Initiative”, where they have identified parcels for which they have no current or anticipated future use. According to documents from a planned presentation to the Board of Directors, four properties have already been identified and are either being appraised or have an appraisal planned. The list includes sites on Atlantic, Normandy, Talleyrand, and the existing HQ.  Those initial four are valued around $32.5 million, but JEA projects they could sell for as much as $65 million. Several other sites could follow, with a value of more than $100 million. Senior leadership envisions using that revenue to offset the cost of a new Downtown headquarters, and the documents project that would mean not having to look at customer rates to fund the facility. Off Southside and Atlantic sits the former Coggin Automotive dealership site. JEA acquired that property in 2011 to aid construction under the Total Water Management Plan, which involved a water transmission pipeline. Because that project has now been completed, JEA says they have no use for the roughly five acre property, although they would retain an easement for the underground utilities that were installed. A second site is 250 acres in the Cecil Commerce Center off Normandy Boulevard. JEA’s overall claim right now is 305 acres, but that involves an electric substation, water treatment plant, and other improvements and restrictions. JEA’s analysis has determined they can reduce their acreage, and would then be in a good position to sell a “prime commercial/industrial parcel”, according to the Board packet. In the Talleyrand area is the third property, of which JEA is considering selling 30-36 of its 48 acres. This faces up to the St. Johns River, and could therefore be attractive for industrial maritime development, according to JEA. They would retain the land that has improvements on the site- including two combustion turbine generators- and sell the rest, under the initiative. Finally, JEA has identified their current Downtown headquarters as a property to potentially sell. The Board documents note that JEA could sell and then lease the property back, until they’re prepared to move in to the new HQ. It’s expected to take more than two years to get the new building up and JEA moved in. This campus is actually three separate lots, which includes parking. The current HQ needs substantial repair, and is too large for JEA’s current needs. A September 2016 assessment- which WOKV was told is the most recent comprehensive assessment of the Tower- showed renovating the structure as it stands was at that time expected to cost between $65.3 million and $78.2 million. Problems identified with the Tower include everything from efficiencies, like the poor floor plan, to systems problems, like plumbing, electrical, and security. Just last month, parts of nine floors in the 19-story Tower experienced flooding because of several different building issues. The cost of the repairs and cleanup in that case was around $60,000. JEA’s Board of Directors has been weighing three proposals for a new Downtown HQ, and they’re expected to vote next month on which plan to move forward with. The cost of each of the proposals has not been made public, nor is it clear at this time how much of that bill the real estate sales could cover. GALLERY: JEA HQ proposal at Lot J by TIAA Bank Field GALLERY: JEA HQ proposal at Kings Avenue Station on the Southbank GALLERY: JEA HQ proposal on West Adams Street by the County Courthouse JEA says an appraisal is underway at the Atlantic site, and the other three properties have appraisals pending. While these four properties have been identified at this point, JEA says they could pursue others, including two thousand acres at the former St. Johns River Power Park, around two dozen small surplus properties, and surplus areas on existing tracts. JEA further projects they would incur operations and maintenance savings by not having to do landscaping, security, and related areas at the properties they sell. For just the four parcels identified so far, that savings is estimated around $1 million annually. The process involves first appraising the properties, and then offering them to other government agencies at appraised value, according to JEA. If there is interest, that’s where the sale would be, but if not, there would be a public bid process and formal award. There is no timeline for how long that process could take, but the Board would have to approve any sale over $500,000, and the Board and City Council would have to approve any sale under assessed value. The Board will be presented this initiative for discussion Tuesday, although they will not have to take any action at this point. Leasing or partnering in development on properties could also be considered, although the Board packet shows JEA’s leadership studied that and determined selling the sites would be the best move economically.

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