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No new public development dollars until Jax pension debt deal is done

As Jacksonville’s Mayor fights for his proposed fix for paying down the City’s $2.6 billion pension debt, that’s the focus, and development plans will be pushed to the side.

It’s the message from Chief Administrative Officer Sam Mousa, who spoke Wednesday at a meeting of the Downtown Investment Authority. He says- while the DIA can continue its work- the Administration’s priority will not be finding more public funds for development deals in any part of the City until the pension debt issue is put to rest.

“Has nothing to do with a project, has nothing to do with Downtown- it’s solving a problem that has been going on in this City,” says DIA Chairman James Bailey.

Jacksonville Mayor Lenny Curry is backing a proposal to extend a half-cent sales tax you approved for construction projects under the Better Jacksonville Plan past its 2030 expiration date. After 2030, revenue from the tax would instead go to paying down the pension debt. The proposal has cleared two committees at the State level, but has three more to go before votes by the full House and Senate and a sign-off by the Governor. From there, the City Council would need to approve putting the measure on a ballot for you to have the final vote.

Mousa says they’re hoping it could be on a ballot as soon as August and no later than November, but there are a lot of factors that will determine that. If voters sign on, there’s still collective bargaining that would need to take place with the unions involved to switch new members to a defined benefits plan- a requirement under the current proposal.

All said and done, Mousa says it’s looking to be around 18 months before the City can tap the revenue for the debt pay down, if things go as hoped.

He says the money the City is pouring in to the debt now is the funding needed for new deals, and once that’s free, they will have to “beg” for development deals to meet the available money. Until there is a resolution, however, Mousa says the pension issue will be the Mayor’s priority.

“We are in second or third gear, this is a really good year to get in fourth or fifth gear. And this pause may jeopardize that,” says DIA Board Member Oliver Barakat.

He says the DIA has been working to build momentum for Downtown development.

“You have this positive economic momentum, you want to build on top of that to kind of get us over that tipping point,” Barakat says.

During the meeting, Board Members shared the feeling that Downtown is “one big project” away from a big breakthrough, and there was hope redeveloping the Laura Street Trio and Barnett Building could be that project, but the conversation was grim after Mousa’s statement.

“We’ve got to figure out how we can do it some other way without affecting public dollars,” says Bailey.

The development team for the project was trying to get more of a City contribution for the project. Developer Steve Atkins, with SouthEast Group, says they’ve been flexible with pushing deadlines and trying to rearrange the project, but they’re running thin.

“Every deal has a life span, and we’re nearing the end of ours,” Atkins tells WOKV.

Bailey says they’ll try to get even more creative and see who can be brought in, but time is short.

“Until we get that together, I don’t know that we have anywhere to go at this point,” he says.

While the DIA worries about slowing momentum, they also believe there will be self-funded projects that continue. Other bigger projects may have timelines that can be adjusted. While the proposal to redevelop the Shipyards wasn’t explicitly stated at any point, that does have an ask for City dollars. Other Downtown redevelopment plans, like the Landing, have an unclear public contribution, and still others are in the works in other parts of the City. The only way those happen until the pension debt deal is done is, now, without public dollars.

Overall, Board Members urged Mousa to act quickly on anything within the City’s capabilities in order to shift development deals back in to focus. 

“If the timeline can be accelerated to solve this pension problem and get the City back in business for new development projects, than that’s a really, really critical goal,” Barakat says.

Mousa told the Board the Mayor does value development- Downtown and City-wide- and they realize the importance of continuing to bring in new deals, but pension needs to be the focus.

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