JACKSONVILLE, Fla. – Jacksonville City Council vote Monday morning voted against a property tax rate increase but set another meeting for Tuesday afternoon to discuss raising the sales tax one-half cent to help fund a $1.7 billion deficit in the city's pension fund.
The council sets the millage rate now even though the final budget will not be approved until late September.
City Council members are disagreeing with Mayor Alvin Brown's office on whether the budget he proposed last month is balanced. But council member Richard Clark said it's so under budget that he proposed a property tax hike to balance it. With that proposal voted down Monday, he said the only choice is to cut millions of dollars in programs.
Clark said dipping into the emergency reserves is not how council members want to pay bills, and that's why he said the budget needs to be balanced. The Mayor's Office unveiled the budget in July and said it is balanced.
Clark, however, said the budget is $30 million short.
"Thirty million dollars is not easy to get to," Clark said. "You're not going to gain any police officers; you're not going to gain any new fire station. You're going to have reduced services across the board. That's what we are; we are a service industry."
That is troublesome for other council members, who say the city is ignoring its biggest issue -- crime.
"Crime is increasing, murders are increasing, and we have a community that is calling out for help and we are not providing it," Councilman Warren Jones said.
Jones said prevention programs have to be included in this budget.
The Mayor's Office said it needs extra money for a one-time investment in things like revitalizing downtown, parks and the city's libraries, but add it is not dipping into any unnecessary funds.
"This budget it balanced. We've had other people review it. It's totally balanced. We've proposed strategic use of reserves to continue investment in the city," said the mayor's spokesman, David DeCamp.
The mayor is still off on vacation and was not at Monday's meeting. His staff said he is committed to this budget and not to a tax increase.
So while the tax rate remains the same, many residents will be paying slightly more because property values have increased.
Clark said the council voting down a proposed tax hike also affects the city when it comes to the pension issue.
"We got a city with an enormous liability, the single-biggest issue of our time," Clark said. "The rating agencies have already told us we are downgraded this, you have to fix this. And today we took a step backwards."
Councilman Bill Gulliford said the solution is increasing the sales tax by a half-cent to fund pensions. It's what the pension task force recommends, and Gulliford believes it's a fair solution.
"There are a lot of people who don't pay any property taxes that rely on those services," he said. "And really this is just an offset of the cost of policing and providing fire prevention. So it's logical that you want to spread that cost over as large a base as possible."
The idea has been discussed in the past to do it. Council was originally told it would have to raise property taxes and then swap that out with a sales tax. That may not be the case anymore, and that's why council members are meeting Tuesday to go over options.
The mayor, though, is opposed to this idea and believes extra money should come from JEA.
"We may not have his support, but what I think is more important is getting community support because I think they recognize that we are in a box," Gulliford said.
The head of the Concerned Taxpayers of Duval County, attorney John Winkler, does not think the sales tax is fair.
"I don't think it's the way to go and my clients don't think it's the way to go," he said. "I have a lot of clients that are members of a lower economic strata. They feel and I feel this is a very regressive kind of tax."
Winkler said the city needs to know more hard numbers on the pension and then decide the solution.