Thursday, July 16, 2009

We do not want government services cut, but we do not want to pay for them

According to the July 16, 2009 article "Town hall sends message to City Hall: Don't raise taxes and don't cut essential services, city officials are told" in the Florida Times-Union, Jacksonville residents do not want government services cut, but do not want to pay for them either. The budget crunch is a direct result of lower tax revenues because of the 2008 passage of Amendment 1 (which increased the amount of property that could be excluded from taxation) and the ongoing recession.
Though the people attending Wednesday night’s town hall meeting on Jacksonville’s budget crisis fell into two distinct camps, together their message was clear: Balance the city budget without cutting necessary government services and without raising taxes.

There were those who attended the meeting at Florida Community College at Jacksonville’s Deerwood Center to insist that the City Council not support Mayor John Peyton’s proposed property tax increase. They said the budget could be balanced by eliminating waste, including trimming the police and fire department budgets, and all non-essential spending.

Scott MacNaughton, who lives on the Northside and is a member of the Concerned Taxpayers of Duval County, said his family recently decided to use its Christmas savings to pay the city’s stormwater and solid waste fees. Just like he is making tough decisions, so should the city’s elected officials.

The focus should be on public safety, infrastructure and parks, what he considers core services.
“If it doesn’t fit easily into these categories it needs to be examined to be cut or be eliminated,” MacNaughton said.

He and others said the city’s books should be balanced without a tax increase. Some went further to say that even funding for nonprofit and social service agencies should be cut if a shortfall remains.

That conflicted with the views of the other half of the crowd who attended to urge the council to do whatever it takes to preserve money for the arts, education programs and crime prevention.

Leon Baxton, chief operating officer of Communities in Schools, said programs like these should be considered economic development.

“All of these programs produce young people who become adults who become taxpaying citizens,” Baxton said.

He said he supported paying higher taxes if it meant preserving after-school sites, summer camps and scholarships that help children succeed.

The town hall meeting was the first of four organized by City Council President Richard Clark to allow residents to weigh in on the city’s next budget and give their own ideas on how to balance it.

For more than two hours, residents that packed the meeting room weighed in on the budget crisis and either touted their support of social services or their opposition to the mayor’s tax increase proposal.

In addition to Clark, council members Stephen Joost, Clay Yarborough, Don Redman, John Crescimbeni and Bill Bishop attended. Alan Mosley, the mayor’s chief administrative officer, was in the crowd, as well as Duval County Supervisor of Elections Jerry Holland.

At the beginning of the meeting, Yarborough warned that issue isn’t as black and white as Peyton has outlined.

The mayor wants to raise the property tax rate 12 percent, the first rate increase in 17 years. The revenue increase would be added on top of $41 million in cuts Peyton has already proposed to fill a roughly $100 million budget hole.

If the tax rate is not increased, Peyton says fire stations and libraries will close and funding to nonprofit agencies will be severely decreased.

Not so, Yarborough said. The council can balance the budget any way it decides, and the cuts the mayor warns of are not even on the table right now, he said.

During Peyton’s budget address Monday, he challenged council members to find a way to balance the new budget — which includes $22.4 million in additional spending than the current budget — without raising taxes but warned he does not think it can be done without drastically affecting quality of life.

Several speakers at the town hall meeting expressed opinions that both camps could agree on.

Barbara Clingenpeel said that belt-tightening across all city departments, including police and fire, should be the first priority. She praised Joost, chairman of the council’s Finance Committee, for saying previously that the council should not consider a tax hike until it studies the budget and finds any possible cuts.

“Please continue to find savings and efficiencies before raising taxes,” said Clingenpeel, who lives on the Westside.

But she also expressed support of social services, including the Jacksonville Journey anti-crime initiative.

“We need to support public services, the arts, everything that gives our city a good quality of life,” she said.
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