‘We have to start somewhere’: City, JEA commit $26.8M to continue septic tank phaseouts

Mayor says project will take years, billions of dollars to complete the project citywide

Mayor says project will take years, billions of dollars to complete the project citywide.

JACKSONVILLE, Fla. – Jacksonville Mayor Lenny Curry and several members of the City Council announced details Thursday of a new plan to continue phasing out septic tanks in the city’s underserved neighborhoods.

As part of the plan, the city will put forth $14.3 million and JEA will chip in another $12.5 to complete the project started in 2016 to phase out septic tanks in the Biltmore, Beverly Hills and Christobel neighborhoods.

Curry said his office is working to get an additional $6 million from the state Legislature for the septic tank project.

The News4Jax I-TEAM learned recently that the program hit a snag when the project overran the initial budget of $30 million.

Curry, joined by City Council members Brenda Priestly-Jackson, Ju’Coby Pittman and Vice-President Sam Newby, discussed the budget shortfall during a news conference Tuesday.

“In 2016, my team and I committed to completing septic tank phaseouts in three Jacksonville neighborhoods with the highest need,” Mayor Curry said. “We started the project and that funding ran out, however, our commitment to families living there did not. The additional funding we announced today, in collaboration with City Council and JEA, will fulfill that promise and complete the important work in the Christobel communities.”

More than $17 million was already used to complete the project in the Biltmore neighborhood, officials said, and work is currently underway in the Beverly Hills neighborhood, where $38 million is allocated.

Now that additional funding has been secured, the project will expand to the Christobel community, directly impacting 509 homes.

“To me, we have an obligation first and foremost to serve the needs of the least among us. For us, it’s those neighbors who for various reasons have been overlooked and oftentimes find themselves challenges financially to address certain needs in their communities,” Priestly-Jackson said.

The Mayor’s Office said the three council members have worked with the mayor to secure the $25 million in funding need to complete the third neighborhood.

The effort to remove septic tanks is meant to make good on a broken promise made in 1968 during consolidation. The city agreed to improve drainage and sewer systems in older neighborhoods as it expanded the city boundaries to go all the way out to the beaches.

But to this day, tens of thousands of Jacksonville residents still depend on septic tanks, which have harmful effects on the local tributaries.

“We have to start somewhere,” Curry said. “We can’t keep writing this issue off as a multi-generational and multi-billion dollar problem that is too big to address. We made promises to do this and the time has come for government to start keeping its promises to its people, however big or however expensive. Stay tuned for an announcement in the coming weeks where in collaboration with my colleagues on City Council, we will further address this decades-old issue once and for all.”

Curry said more funding is needed, in addition to the $26.8 million, to replace septic tanks in more than 30 additional neighborhoods. He said when the project is all said and done it could cost upwards of $2 billion.

“This is going to take a really long time to do this. You can’t do this in a year. I’m talking about the whole scope of septic tanks. You can’t do this in two years or three years,” Curry said. “It’s important that with the plan we have today we work together for a long-term plan that will transcend our time in office. But that we’ll remain committed to resolving this issue.”

The mayor and City Council members also expressed hope that the projects would create jobs in the socioeconomically vulnerable neighborhoods.

Northside residents Willie Lyons and Yvvone Ward said they remain skeptical after waiting for six decades for a change that never arrived.

“In my opinion, that’s going to go two or three blocks and then they’ll run out of money again,” Lyons said. ″This is the Northside, and I don’t know why we are overlooked. That’s just my opinion.”

“They just forgot about us, because if we don’t speak up, then they just let us go without,” Ward said.

But Pittman said skeptical neighbors who say they’ve heard these promises before should expect to see shovels in the ground and the work being completed.

“This issue did not happen overnight. It’s going to take some time. It’s going to take some money,” Pittman said. “We’re listening. We’re taking action. We’re implementing and we’re finding the dollars that will make this community whole again.”

Hazouri files $100M proposal

City Council President Tommy Hazouri filed a $100 million plan earlier this week to address the effort to phase out septic tanks beyond the Biltmore, Beverly Hills and Christobel neighborhoods.

A news release Tuesday evening said Hazouri’s plan would help pay for the removal of the septic tanks in “the remaining of the more neglected neighborhoods throughout the county.”

“It is time that we stand and deliver and fill the unfulfilled promises of yesterday. These neighborhoods are vital for the well-being of Jacksonville. For too long, we have not provided the assistance that is so desperately needed. The time to act is now, our responsibility is to protect the health, safety, and welfare of each citizen. We can no longer delay--or avoid--making the investments in our neighborhoods that have been left behind or left out,” Hazouri said in a prepared statement. “My plan is to eradicate these septic tanks and contribute to the quality of life that all residents of Jacksonville deserve.”

Hazouri’s proposal seeks $100 million to make a sustainable long-term commitment to remove the septic tanks and hook up to city services. Residents have told News4Jax that the real problems arise following heavy rains, when their septic tanks back up from the floodwater and the runoff of human waste goes into the river.

At Tuesday night’s City Council meeting, Hazouri introduced legislation 2021-100 amending the five-year capital improvement funding program to fund the project titled “The Water/Wastewater System Fund.”

“We know that $100,000,000 is just the beginning of the necessary funding to fulfill our promise. We care deeply about our city; I hope JEA in conjunction with the City will soon make a commitment to further the efforts of eradicating septic tanks,” Hazouri said.

Curry said during Thursday’s news conference that he had not yet read Hazouri’s legislation and could not comment on it.

About the Authors:

Tarik anchors the 4, 5:30 and 6:30 p.m. weekday newscasts and reports with the I-TEAM.

Jacksonville native and proud University of Florida graduate who joined News4JAX in 2016.