JACKSONVILLE, Fla. - After hearing from Sheriff John Rutherford Friday morning, a Jacksonville City Council committee voted to fully fund the agency, virtually assuring a property tax increase this year.
Mayor Alvin Brown's proposed budget called for nearly $30 million in cuts to the Jacksonville Sheriff's Office budget, which Rutherford said would require laying off up to 300 officers and closing a successful jail drug treatment center.
After hearing from the sheriff, the finance committee agreed to return $27 million to the JSO budget. Of that, $7 million is money the sheriff saved last year by running his department a bit more efficiently.
"I got what we needed to keep this community safe, and I think what the public wants and expects is a police department and a fire department that is funded properly," Rutherford said.
The sheriff said he won't be able to add back staff he had to lay off last year and did say that is one reason why the city is beginning to see an uptick in crime.
"This is to maintain current service levels. This does not make the hole go away," Rutherford said. "I'm still 147 officers down. I am still 97 community service officers down. We are just not laying anymore off. That's why I say, 'Did you get what you want?' And I say, 'Heck no.'"
Council members on Friday also discussed funding indigent care at UF Heath, but no decision was made.
Mayor Brown last month presented City Council with a budget that would not raise taxes, but would require more than $60 million cut from last year's funding. Many council members objected to the across-the-board cuts in all city departments and reductions to public safety and other areas they said would reduce the quality of life in the city.
City Council then voted to raise the cap on the property tax rate by nearly 15 percent to give them room to reverse cuts as they went through the budget process.
"I think honesty is the best way you sell it," council President Bill Gulliford said. "I think that anyone who looks at it fairly sees the predicament that we are in. The can has been kicked down the road, and it's finally landed at our feet. What are we suppose to do?"
"If you are going to say I am not raising taxes and fees, that's fine. I have no problem with that," Gulliford said of the mayor. "But you show specifically how you are going to do that. He threw that in our lap. That is what he did. He threw that right in our lap and said you all support my position by being totally irresponsible."
The mayor's office released this statement Thursday afternoon:
"The mayor's proposed budget balances spending without raising taxes. The decision by City Council to potentially raise taxes and increase spending is Council's right.
"We empowered department directors, including independent elected officeholders, to share the responsibility of protecting hardworking taxpayers. We took a strategic approach by asking all departments and agencies for efficiencies and spending reductions to propose to Council.
"We respect the effort that the Finance Committee has provided to review our proposed budget. That includes the time allotted today to review the Sheriff's Office, which accounts for the largest part of the City's operating budget."
Recommendations by the Finance Committee must be approved by the full City Council by the end of September. The budget must be approved by Oct. 1, the beginning of the new fiscal year.
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