July 22nd, 2009 9:30 AM by Sherry Lee
Favoring deeper cuts over higher taxes, the Jacksonville City Council’s Finance Committee on Monday rejected Mayor John Peyton’s plan to balance the budget with a 12 percent property tax rate increase.
The seven-member committee voted narrowly to recommend keeping the tax rate the same — a move that forces the council to figure out how to chop $50 million more from the 2009-10 budget.
“I think we owe it to the citizens of Jacksonville to do just that and to try to balance this budget before we look at ways to enhance our revenue,” said council President Richard Clark, who cast the tie-breaking vote against the mayor’s plan even though he is not a member of the committee.
After the bill was amended, the measure passed the committee on a unanimous vote.
Council Vice President Jack Webb, a committee member, lobbied against lowering the tax rate ceiling but missed the vote because of work obligations with his legal practice that caused him to leave early. He said he would have voted with the minority, which would have caused the amendment to fail.
That left the committee vote at 3-3 until Clark stepped in.
The Finance Committee has seven members, but Clark as council president is allowed to vote on any committee he chooses.
Clark recently appointed two additional members to the committee, but they weren’t allowed to cast votes Monday because the council hasn’t approved expanding the committee to nine members.
The full 19-member council must set the maximum tax rate July 28, and Peyton said he’s hopeful a majority will vote to set the ceiling at the higher 9.5 mills he is advocating.
A who’s who of local business leaders have joined Peyton in lobbying council members to raise the property tax rate. A letter dated July 17 includes 23 high-powered names, including Lynn Pappas, Peter Rummell, John Rood, Hugh Greene, and John Delaney.
“We support a millage increase at the vote on July 28, which will allow the council the opportunity to fully debate the mayor’s priorities for the budget,” the letter stated. “This is responsible leadership.”
Even if the council stands its ground and sticks with the current 8.48 mills, that doesn’t mean the tax issue is over.
Peyton can veto the council’s bill that tentatively sets the rate or even refuse to sign it. If that happens, Duval County property owners will be notified that their maximum tax rate is 9.27 mills — the “rollback” rate needed to keep city’s property tax revenue even with the previous year’s total.
Normally, the rollback rate is lower than the current rate. But not this year. Because of the depressed property market, the rollback rate is almost as high as the mayor’s proposed rate.
Peyton wouldn’t indicate Monday what action he’d take if the council approves the current 8.48-mill rate.
“I’m aware of my options but am staying focused on balancing the budget and serving the citizens of Jacksonville,” the mayor said.
Clark has said he believes there is $50 million in savings in the budget and is optimistic the books can be balanced without a tax increase.
Starting in August, the Finance Committee will review each department’s budget and look for proposed cuts. Many have indicated reductions in police and fire department budgets should be on the table, something Peyton says he does not support.
Councilman Clay Yarborough, who introduced the amendment that would keep the tax rate at the current level, expressed frustration Monday that the mayor was warning taxpayers of cuts to services and departments that aren’t even on the table and might never be considered, such as closing fire stations, library branches and the Ritz Theatre.
“That’s not being honest with the public,” Yarborough said.
The council has until September to set a final tax rate, but property owners must be sent a second notice if that final number is higher than what they were initially told. The expense of sending new paperwork could cost more than $200,000, officials said.
Councilman Bill Bishop said he was willing to risk spending the $200,000 if it means showing taxpayers the council has done everything possible to identify cuts before raising taxes.
“What it does is it forces us to do our homework,” he firstname.lastname@example.org(904) 359-4425