Mayor's Projects Still under Review; Council Loath to OK Unprecedented Borrowing; No Funding Found Yet

By Hong, Christopher | The Florida Times Union, December 26, 2014 | Go to article overview

Mayor's Projects Still under Review; Council Loath to OK Unprecedented Borrowing; No Funding Found Yet


Hong, Christopher, The Florida Times Union


Byline: Christopher Hong

When Mayor Alvin Brown announced his proposed budget last summer, he unveiled the most ambitious spending plan of his time in office, one that would greenlight a record high $235 million in new borrowing for investments in downtown redevelopment, a facelift for Five Points and improvements to parks and roads.

None of that happened.

Instead, the City Council, skeptical whether the taxpayers could afford to take on that much new debt, executed its own plan. Council members approved just a portion of the new borrowing Brown requested, suspended tens of millions of dollars worth of previously approved projects and vowed to thoroughly examine city borrowing.

Once that review was completed, council members said they would consider approving a limited list of new, high-priority projects if any leftover money was found from completed projects or existing projects were deauthorized.

That review still hasn't been completed.

So heading toward the new year, it remains unclear which, if any, new capital improvement projects - like park upgrades, environmental cleanups and economic development initiatives - will be approved this year or whether the city will commit additional money toward road and sidewalk repairs beyond the bare-bones amount included in the budget.

Although a final conclusion hasn't been reached, Councilman Richard Clark, who led the Finance Committee last fall during its budget review, said he doesn't think any money will be found to take on new projects this year.

"We were very hopeful and really optimistic that all we would need to do is understand where we were, and generally believed we'd find available cash that gives us the ability to do some projects," Clark said. "Unfortunately, we've found just the opposite."

While much of City Hall's attention has been fixated on pension reform, a special council committee has worked to find answers to some seemingly simple questions that have been asked for years: Of all the capital improvement projects the city has authorized, which ones have been completed, which ones are underway, and which ones haven't been started?

Finding the answers will require a project-by-project review, a tedious task expected to take a considerable amount of time. And until those answers are found, the council shouldn't authorize any new debt, said Councilwoman Lori Boyer, chairwoman of the special committee.

Boyer said she now envisions a "reset" of sorts on the city's capital improvement plan, a five-year road map that lays out how the city will complete and pay for projects.

She's asked each council member to go through a nearly 300-page list of approved projects and prioritize the ones in their districts.

Boyer said that could mean projects that were promised to residents in former budgets could be replaced for more pressing needs. "We're trying to be careful that [projects] won't get lost, but if something else is truly an emergency, it needs to be a higher priority," she said.

Council President Clay Yarborough said the city has a long list of needs, but its financial situation limits its ability to address them. As the city sets priorities, he said, projects that benefit the whole city may trump those that benefit specific parts of town, even though that may disappoint residents.

"I hope there's not a lot of dissatisfaction, but that pruning effect is necessary when you're in a situation like this," Yarborough said.

As the council picked apart his budget, Brown defended his ambitious plan, noting that not all of the $235 million would be borrowed in one year. …

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