Jacksonville, FL — 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.