Absence speaks louder than their words

Absence speaks louder than their words

Where were Lakewood residents? –

Based on reports of Lakewood residents unhappy about the ad valorem tax increase, District 5 Councilwoman Lori Boyer was armed and ready to discuss the events leading up to City Council’s vote to increase property tax by 14 percent. The meeting could have been lively, at best, and contentious, at worst.
That is, if anyone had bothered to show up.

lakewoodIn all fairness, there were seven people at the Oct. 21 meeting at Lakewood Presbyterian Church, including three from the church.
In fact, the number of officials was equal to the number of attendees. In addition to Boyer, there was State Representative Charles McBurney, At-Large Councilman Robin Lumb, Belinda Johnson, representing the City’s CARE System, Kimberly Scott, division chief for Municipal Code Compliance, Ashley Smith Juarez, Board member, Duval County Public Schools, serving District 3, and Boyer’s executive assistant, Allison Adams.

Johnson provided an overview of 630-CITY, the CARE System which affords residents the opportunity to submit issues and track resolution. Scott followed with a discussion on municipal code compliance and enforcement, noting that nuisance properties are the number one violation, usually for overgrowth. Of the 81,403 service requests citywide, nearly 33 percent are for nuisance property issues. Although that same issue was number one in District 5, it only represented 25 percent of the total requests for service.

Guest speakers address light “crowd”
“Since our crowd is very light and I have a rather detailed discussion on budget and pension for those who had expressed concerns about it, I would like to give our special guests an opportunity to say a few words,” said Boyer.

Congressman McBurney and Councilman Lumb both spoke briefly, respectively, about pedestrian safety along University Boulevard and the 2013-2014 budget.
Rep. McBurney mentioned a recent meeting with several groups concerning San Jose Boulevard and the recent traffic tragedy. “Crossing San Jose Boulevard as a pedestrian can be quite overwhelming and intimidating,” he said. “There were a number of ideas and suggestions, such as extending the amount of time for a person to reasonably cross the boulevard.” The congressman also shared that he is chairman of the justice appropriations subcommittee, as well as sits on the joint legislative budget commission to help set long-range plans, and on the education, appropriations and judiciary committees.

Lumb noted that as a member of the finance committee “that whole budget process was extraordinarily difficult, but I think at the end of the day we did what we had to do to hold together a functioning municipal government in Duval County. The driver on all these budget issues is the escalating pension costs, which is something we have no control over.”

“But I want to say you are fortunate to have the person who is arguably the hardest working and most knowledgeable person on City Council,” Lumb said about Boyer. “My City Council aide calls her an energizer bunny; you are fortunate to have her working for you.”

Smith-Juarez shared the strategic goals of the Duval County Public Schools, first noting “We are working very diligently to make sure we have an effective, efficient, creative and fun education system for your children.” The new strategic plan has four central goals: developing and retaining great teachers and leaders; engaging parents, caregivers and the community to streamline the process of partnerships for the schools; using resources effectively, efficiently and equitably; and educating the whole child, which includes addressing the arts, physical activity and security in the schools.

Much ado about the budget was…nothing?
Following an hour’s worth of remarks by the aforementioned, Boyer got to the meat of the meeting. Well prepared, the councilwoman addressed the concerns that those absent Lakewood residents had about the tax increase.

She presented the budget process timeline, beginning last spring, noting that the Council Finance Committee and other standing committees spent 67 hours in budget hearings and the full Council met in back to back sessions for a total of nearly 17 hours of debate on the budget and more than 40 amendments.
The tentative millage increase approved by Council in July was done so to bridge the $60 million gap in Mayor Brown’s proposed budget, which also included across the board cuts in services. Even with the increase, cuts in services will occur, said Boyer.

Historically, the millage rate has reflected property tax values. When property values were high, the rate was low. In 2008-2009, the rate was at a 20-year low at 8.4841 mils while taxable property values were over $55 billion, resulting in revenue for that fiscal year of just over $472 million.

Taxable property values plummeted shortly thereafter and are now 22.48 percent lower than they were five years ago. The approved 2013-2014 millage increase resulted in a rate 35 percent higher than it was at the all-time low in 2008-2009 but was necessary to get to a 2013-2014 ad valorem tax revenue source that is not even five percent higher than it was five years ago.

Boyer explained that the millage is the only source available to the combined city-county budget for general funding that is within control of City Council. “Other funding sources, such as cellular franchise fees, are declining,” she noted. “The pension obligation – required by law – is skyrocketing.”

The elephant in the courts
As Lumb noted earlier in the meeting, the escalating pension costs continue to rear an ugly head every year the budget approvals comes around. The pension fund continues to be underfunded, and current negotiations between the Police and Fire Pension Fund, police and firefighter unions, the Office of the Mayor and City Council are awaiting the decision of a federal lawsuit regarding the 30-year settlement agreement. The suit is trying to determine whether the agreement trumps state law, which indicates the pension is subject to collective bargaining every three years.

Following the councilwoman’s insightful discussion on pension reform, Boyer spent a few minutes providing an update on various District 5 issues, including the Overland Bridge Project, which is about 24 percent complete after 10 months, and improvements in four district parks.

Boyer was not perturbed by the small attendance at the town hall, which was publicized through The Resident, via emails to specific constituents, and through her newsletter, which is emailed to more than 1,500 residents, as well as being announced at the San Marco town hall meeting earlier in the month.

“Your thorough updates on local news and government are providing a great public service,” said Boyer in an email to The Resident. “In some ways, I think people feel less need to attend a meeting when you provide the forum in print. I am fine either way; it gets the message out.”

By Kate A. Hallock
Resident Community News

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