Jacksonville, FL — Grants for community groups fighting violence, a vacuum truck to drain inlets, and renovations to bring more services to the Sulzbacher Center are just some of the budget enhancements the City Council Finance Committee has made, as they wind down their process of reviewing Mayor Lenny Curry's $1.2 billion City budget proposal.
As the Committee vetted the budget with the City Council Auditor’s Office, they changed some financial assumptions and fixed some accounting points, ultimately freeing up $877,331 in uncommitted funds. Also through this process, Council members have heard requests from various departments and organizations about funding or items they want that did not make the Mayor’s proposal. Those were put on a list of “enhancements”, along with requests from the Council members themselves, for a total of 16 items for $1,614,250, with some of that funding being recurring dollars. On Thursday, they decided on six projects to get the funds.
Two of the enhancements come amid a wave of violence that has hit Jacksonville. The first vote the Committee took was $300,000 to fund small grants for community and faith-based organizations working anti-violence efforts.
“The idea is to create small cells within our high-risk communities and ask our small faith-based and community-based organizations to work together to pool their resources. We think that is a strategy that will allow for us to make our most significant impact and to be able to measure the outcomes,” says Kids Hope Alliance CEO Joe Peppers.
Despite this being one of the last items on the list of possible enhancements in front of the Committee, it was the first action they took, because of the overwhelming support that had become apparent. This will funnel through KHA, which already has $50,000 budgeted for the effort. Curry has also committed $50,000 in executive reserves for similar grants, bringing the total to $400,000.
“I think that it’s a big win for the community and Jacksonville,” says Councilman Reggie Gaffney.
The second area is grief counseling, trauma care, and burial costs for children who have been exposed to or are victims of violent crime. Initially, the KHA sought $60,000 for this effort, but the Committee budgeted $42,732, as part of the final compromise to fund several initiatives.
Hand-in-hand with these public safety initiatives is the Council’s mission to fight homelessness and boost services for that community. As such, they threw support behind a measure that was put forward at the last minute by Council President Aaron Bowman, to benefit the Sulzbacher Center.
The proposal initially sought $200,000 to co-locate the Mental Health Resource Center’s Quest Program and Link Program, which provides housing assistance and mental health services, respectively. Close to $51,000 is for renovating currently vacant space to accommodate the new services, which is one-time funding. Recurring costs come through an estimated $70,000 in increased utilities and just over $79,000 to use JSO to increase security on site. To compromise with the other projects, Bowman committed to working with JEA to handle that bill elsewhere. The Committee agreed to fund $120,000, with the Sulzbacher Center seeking partners to make up the gap.
“You know we know how to squeeze a dime at the Sulzbacher Center, so if we need to give $5,000 to grief counseling to children, it’s kind of hard for me to say no to that,” says Sulzbacher Center President and CEO Cindy Funkhouser.
Another non-public safety priority is Public Works, and specifically drainage.
“I look at the things that are going to bring maybe some benefit, is going to be for the whole community, that would be significant in the arena of basic service. And that’s what goes first and foremost, and that’s our primary responsibility first and foremost, basic service,” says Councilman Bill Gulliford.
Several Council members said they have been inundated with calls about flooding in neighborhoods across the City, so they are funding a $360,000 vacuum truck, or Vac Con, to be used to drain inlets and pipes.
“Whether we’ve had more rain this year or not, it is a challenge for our department to keep up with the requests, and I think having the extra equipment is a valuable asset,” says Councilwoman Lori Boyer.
This is something the Administration says they can use, although they didn’t budget for it, because they prioritized litter and blight issues with the available funding in the budget proposal. The Administration says this would likely bring the City’s Vac Con fleet to the highest level its ever been- at six overall- with two of those being replaced in the next budget proposal, because of age.
Another enhancement is $50,000 for Agape Family Health. In similar action last year, where there were available contingency funds, the Council gave Agape $187,962. In this budget proposal, Curry offered up $100,000. Agape had sought not only to be restored, but enhanced to $250,000 overall, because they say demand is rising. Instead of the $150,000 requested, the Committee budgeted $50,000.
“Our numbers are going up, in terms of the number of uninsured that we’re seeing. So it just means that we’ll have to see them, and then we’ll be in the red,” says Agape CEO Mia Jones.
A small $4,599 was set aside to ensure new City Council members would have access to the full communications and parking allowance during the transition time. Finally, the Committee decided to increase the employee cap of the Tax Collector's Office by two- they had sought four- but those positions are not funded at this time. The Tax Collector's Office wants the positions in order to offer new services, including processing concealed carry permits. They are projecting that revenue from these services could cover two positions, so that money will be shifted internally.
In approving these projects, there were several proposals that the Committee passed over.
The Public Service Grant Council initially sought more funding for grants, but scaled that back to request $50,000 to hire a consultant to study the return on investment of grants in the program, and the priority populations they serve. Public Service Grant Council Chair Lara Diettrich says this would have given them information to answer questions the Council consistently puts forward.
“I find it frustrating that you’re telling me no, when I’m trying to answer you,” she says.
Some Council members saw this as an expense on a narrow snapshot in time, as opposed to something with broad impact.
The Cultural Council of Greater Jacksonville was hoping to get at least $1 million additional to boost the grant funding they provide to 27 organizations. Executive Director Tony Allegretti says he is thankful for the support the Council and Administration has provided, but he wants to see them move toward funding levels like what they had before the economic downturn. Councilman Jim Love also linked the grant program to the City's overarching public safety concerns, because he says the programs they fund serve 400,000 kids each year.
“I think it helps with the violence in the city, because if you’re busy with art, you’re not busy with other things,” Love says.
While several Council members say they support the organization and work that’s being done, they did not see this as a priority in this specific City budget.
Councilwoman Joyce Morgan asked for $200,000 for a mobile broadcasting vehicle for WJCT to be used during an emergency like a hurricane, but she was short on answers for what else the vehicle could be used for, so that it wasn’t just sitting around most days.
Overall, the Committee was especially wary of recurring expenses- anything like salaries, which would be committee in future budget years as well. The reason for the hesitation is that Florida voters will weigh a new homestead exemption on the November ballot, and if that passes, it will save the average homeowner, but cost the City tens of millions of dollars in the next budget in lost property tax revenue. Anticipating that hole, the Administration and Council didn't want to overcommit going in to the next proposal. That hesitation and how the other projects were prioritized led the Committee to pass on a proposal to add an additional engineering position to Public Works, to help with the large number of capital projects and other work taking place.
There had also been two requests relating to the Jacksonville Public Library system- one to generally examine increasing hours, and another to specifically add three hours each week at the Southeast Library. Love says he spoke with the JPL Director, who was satisfied with the hours boost that's already included in the budget, which will ensure that every library is open at least six days a week.
The decisions on the Committee and Curry’s overall budget proposal are still pending approval by the full City Council. That vote will take place next month, before the start of the next fiscal year, October 1st.