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City Council passes tentative budget

Public voices concern over cuts for five hours before vote

JACKSONVILLE, Fla. – After five hours of public comment and debate among City Council members, a tentative budget was passed 14-4 at City Hall on Tuesday night.

The City Council took its first look at the budget Tuesday, as the council members tried to close a $50 million budget shortfall for the upcoming year.

After the vote, City Councilman John Crescimbeni told News4Jax this has been one of the most difficult budgets he's ever dealt with in his career.

"What we agreed on tonight in the budget are the millage rates to be set for the city and the urban districts and the tentative budget for next year," Crescimbeni said. "Just a tentative process. We're required by law to kind of lay that on the table for two weeks so it's in a parked mode. It's not changing like it did through the budget process so citizens have the opportunity to see a non-moving product… to see what's going to be contemplating in two weeks."

On Friday, the Finance Committee approved across-the-board cuts of nearly 2.5 percent for every department. The committee also recommended closing three fire stations, cutting early voting sites in half and eliminating capital improvement projects, including the $11 million proposal to renovate the Jacksonville Landing.

Earlier on Tuesday, Councilman Bill Gulliford told News4Jax he'd packed both a dinner and a breakfast in anticipation of a marathon budget meeting.

For more than five hours, people from dozens of city departments who stand to be impacted by the budget cuts voiced their concerns about the proposed cuts during a public hearing. 

Almost all of them used words like "compromise," "leniency" and "devastating" when it came to cutting their funding.

The CEO of the Clara White Mission, Ju'Coby Pittman, spoke, along with employees from the Jacksonville Urban League.

"Right now, we're in jeopardy of closing or reducing to maybe one or two days a week, and unfortunately I can't afford to do that," Pittman said. "It's $82,000. To me $82,000 is a drop in the bucket. But those $82,000 provide other dollars that we get, which becomes a safety net for the total program that we provide."

Former Council president Eric Smith spoke on behalf of Jacksonville's Victim Services Center.

"This will set this city back to 1980 in terms of what we do for victims," Smith said.

One of the most vocal groups was Jacksonville Area Legal Aid.

Jim Kowalski, executive director of JALA, said his staff has already taken a 20 percent cut in pay and can't stand to lose a dollar more.

"We're spending twice as much in the city as the city is funding us for an entire year, and that's inappropriate," Kowalski said. "They have an opportunity to change."

JALA had more than 100 supporters in attendance, and at one point in the meeting, all of those supporters stood up in the audience to show the City Council their united front.

Council president Clay Yarborough said JALA will get more than $230,000 in new money through grants next year.

"You only have so much of the pie to put out and with regard to Clara White and other organizations… if we put money back in for one now, there are still seven others that aren't getting money," Yarborough said. "So it really becomes a fairness issue."

And Gulliford said deep cuts are necessary to get the city back in the black.

"The long-term solution is to lower our debt," Gulliford said. "We've used this banking system as a credit card. We've got unsecured debt out there and the mayor was proposing another quarter of a million dollars of additional banking fund debt. What would that have done to us next year? And the year after that? And the year after that? It would have killed us. So we've got to get responsible.

"We've tried to be fair but there is no easy answer," he said.

The budget must be finalized by the end of the month, and the City Council will meet again Sept. 23.