Newspaper article The Florida Times Union

JACKSONVILLE FINANCES; No Easy Choices

Newspaper article The Florida Times Union

JACKSONVILLE FINANCES; No Easy Choices

Article excerpt

The Jacksonville city government is facing a financial crisis, yet many of the citizens don't realize it.

That's the key point to be made from a yearlong study by Jacksonville Community Council Inc., released earlier this week.

There are two possible reasons for this state of affairs.

-- Jacksonville's governmental leaders have let us down. Over the span of several mayoral terms, pension contributions were shortchanged, and the city's budget was patched with insufficient long-term planning. Then, when state leaders started cutting back on local revenues, a fiscal crisis took place.

As JCCI has noted in previous studies dating to 1977, there has been too little real communication with citizens regarding the city's budget.

"Trust us, we know what's best for you," simply won't cut it.

-- Jacksonville families have their own crises to worry about: high unemployment, cuts in pay, reductions in 401K plans, health insurance being dropped and mortgages under threat of foreclosure.

Citizens have every right to expect that city leaders will take sane measures to cut expenses.

In short, priorities must be set. And when additional revenue is needed, it must be justified.

That will require meaningful communication with the people of Jacksonville.

Good examples are the public meetings that took place during the Jacksonville Journey, and the numerous public appearances by city leaders to sell the Better Jacksonville Plan.

CREDIBILITY AN ISSUE

Unfortunately, faith in local government is at a low ebb.

Mayor John Peyton's administration pushed through three new fees without enough citizen participation.

The courthouse is a lingering reminder.

Critical news coverage and grand jury reports have documented shortcomings in open government among City Council members and purchasing practices in the mayor's administration.

Though the Jacksonville Journey process was notable, it stopped short of a reliable funding source, leaving this essential program beholden to annual budgetary fights.

PENSION DEBTS

Underfunded pension liabilities have passed $1 billion. The city has an obligation to meet them.

Yet, more realistic obligations should be negotiated for future pensions, just as the private sector has had to scale back expectations.

JCCI suggests several possibilities:

NEW FUNDS: Dedicated millage increases, transfer of city-owned real estate to pension funds, using one-time revenues and pension obligation bonds.

NO NEW BENEFITS: Place a hold on new pension improvements until funding is up to speed.

REALISTIC PENSION PLAN: For new hires, allow for greater sharing of risk rather than the current guarantees.

If this pension crisis isn't solved, the city will be faced with something like city bankruptcy, shutting it out of public financial markets, for example. …

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