Sometimes it’s hard to know at whom to be more pissed: the Jacksonville City Council, for taking a dismissive glance at Mayor Alvin Brown’s ambitious election-year budget, with investments and new projects that almost everyone agrees the city needs sooner rather than later, and saying, “Eh, we’d rather pad the savings account”; or Brown himself, for offering up a wish list financed by reserves and borrowing up to $230 million over the next five years, even while he’s trying to find $40 million a year to fund his pension fix, a bitter pill for Council to swallow. (God knows we can’t stomach a small tax increase, the world might end.) Or maybe the tightwad Duval voters who last week rejected a referendum that might, one day, maybe lead to a small tax hike to help this city’s underfunded libraries. Or me — and most of you — for not voting at all in the primary.
Let’s just say everybody. I’m pissed at everybody. But mostly Council.
Over the last few weeks, the Council’s Finance Committee has looked askance at Brown’s budget proposal, both because councilmembers are tired of the mayor (in their view) dumping all the hard decisions on them and because the relationship between the two branches has become, shall we say, testy. And so we had the spectacle of an administration official being asked to swear in under oath before testifying, a sure and emphatic marker of distrust. And more important, we also had the committee taking a hacksaw to Brown’s budget, declaring the slate of proposed capital improvement projects — including the $11.8 million Jacksonville Landing renovation and the $12.3 million set aside to clean up incinerator ash sites, among other things — essentially DOA, at least for the time being. “We’re not authorizing any debt,” committee chairman Richard Clark said flatly.
The committee also deep-sixed a small increase for the Cultural Council of Greater Jacksonville, eliminated half of the county’s early voting sites, cut support for Downtown Vision, rejected an expansion of a summer youth jobs program and generally just decided that, what the hell, the status quo isn’t all
Particularly galling, however, was the committee’s decision to zero-fund (for the second straight year) Jacksonville Area Legal Aid — which came on top of Gov. Rick Scott’s veto of state legal aid funding earlier this year, making Florida one of only three states that doesn’t think poor people need lawyers. JALA helps the indigent work through foreclosures and family and immigration cases, among other things. Without JALA, those people have to navigate the justice system without anyone watching their back. As the city has cut JALA’s budget over the last decade — from nearly $750,0000 a year in 2005-’06 to, well, zilch last year — JALA has had to turn away cases and reduce staff. Now, there will be layoffs and furloughs, all because the same City Council that raided tourist taxes to build billionaire Shad Khan’s gargantuan scoreboards couldn’t bear the thought of dipping into its reserves for even 1 percent of that to help the poor.
Great cities aren’t cheap cities. They need great infrastructure, great amenities, great culture and yes, great libraries. They need at least a modicum of services for the poor. They need to invest in themselves, and believe in themselves. And sometimes they need to take on some debt, or pay more taxes, to do it.