Jacksonville Mayor Lenny Curry proposes tax rate cut for bigger budget
Mayor Lenny Curry’s eighth and final budget address found him highlighting the same themes he sounded when he delivered his first budget in 2015, but with far more money in the vault to back up those calls for action.
“Every year, I’ve said that budgets are about priorities, and this morning, I’m here to show you those aren’t just words,” Curry said during his speech in City Council chambers. “Those are promises kept.”
Curry credited the balanced budget to his seven years working toward lowering the city’s debt, increasing funds in the city’s reserves and implementing his pension reform plan in 2018 after voters approved a future half-cent sale tax to pay for pension debt.
The city additionally received the second half of about $343 million in federal pandemic relief money this year and has seen a sharp rise in tax collections fueled by the strong economy.
Curry asked City Council to slightly reduce the property tax rate for a general fund budget that will total $1.55 billion. A separate list of capital improvement projects will clock in at $500 million, the second year in a row that spending for those construction projects that high-level mark.
“Jacksonville truly is a city on the rise, and if we keep doing the work, the best is yet to come,” Curry said
His budget, which the City Council will vet during a series of budget workshops, would reduce the city’s tax rate of about $11.44 per $1,000 of taxable property value down to roughly $11.32 per $1,000. That will be a cut of around 1% in the property tax rate.
Curry said it would be the first time the city has lowered the tax rate since 2007. The rate steadily increased from 2008 until 2013, and has since remained the same.
“Because our neighbors are facing the sting of inflation and because we have built such a strong financial position, I believe it’s time for the first property tax cut since 2007,” he said.
But in the midst of a scorching real estate market, most property-owners still will owe more at tax time even with a lower tax rate because taxable value of property is rising so fast.
Curry’s budget keeps the city’s foot on the gas for spending on dozens of projects across the city in his Capital Improvement Plan. Those range from new fire stations and libraries to street paving and park enhancements.
When Curry unveiled his first budget in 2015, his Capital Improvement Plan totaled $71 million for that year. In a sign of how much has changed since then, City Council members applauded the $71 million figure because at that time, it was the city’s largest work program in five years.
“The year before I came into office, the CIP budget was $20 million in a city of our size, and we crawled and fought to get out of that hole,” Curry said to reporters after his address. “I’m talking to the people of Jacksonville right now: your parks, your sidewalks, your roads, we are investing in every corner of the city.”
The dozens of projects include $26 million for resurfacing streets, $10 million for resiliency projects to counter the impact of climate change, $108 million for parks across the city and the final installment of money to construct a new $15.9 million Oceanway library branch. The Oceanway branch, serving a fast-growing part of the Northside, will be the first new city library since 2006.
Curry, who cannot run again for mayor because of term limits, continues to steer more money into public safety as he has in each of his prior budgets. He is proposing $540 million for the Jacksonville Sheriff’s Office and $365 million for the Fire and Rescue Department, accounting for the largest share of the general fund spending.
Curry also highlighted a bigger budget for the Kids Hope Alliance which provides a slate of year-round programs for young people. It would be nearly $45 million, an increase of 27% from about $35 million this year.
His first budget eight years ago clocked in at $1.15 billion for the general fund and has risen ever since then as more tax dollars flowed to City Hall. He has benefitted so far from a solid economy that avoided a recession even when the COVID-19 pandemic injected a massive dose of uncertainty.
Curry said while some other cities declared a financial state of emergency during the pandemic, Jacksonville not only “survived but thrived” as the city dealt with the impact of the virus.
“We successfully managed uncharted territory during a global pandemic in very challenging economic conditions,” he said.
Tax rate cut benefit will vary for property-owners
City Council members LeAnna Cumber and Garrett Dennis are among the council members who have said they want the city to use some of the federal money to temporarily suspend collecting 4 cents per gallon of the local gas tax.
Curry’s budget does not provide any kind of a local gas tax holiday.
Instead, he agreed with council members, such as Danny Becton, who have been advocating for a lower property tax rate. The proposed cut in the property tax rate would vary among property owners.
Homeowners who have a homestead exemption will see the assessed value of their homes go up by no more than 3% because the state’s Save Our Homes law restrains the rise of home value for tax purposes, even when the market prices are escalating.
For instance, the owner of a $150,000 home with a $50,000 homestead exemption paid a city tax bill of $1,144 last year. If that home has the same value this year, the city bill would be $1,131 under Curry’s proposed tax rate.
If the home increased in value, as so many have, the Save Our Homes cap would limit the rise in assessed value to just 3%. In that scenario, the homeowner’s city tax bill would be $1,182 with Curry’s proposed tax rate.
Property-owners who aren’t sheltered by the Save Our Homes law would generally see bigger jumps in their tax bills. That category covers apartment complexes, rental homes, shopping centers, office buildings and industrial parks.
Even with the cut in the tax rate, the city will still gain nearly $99 million more in property taxes because the overall tax base has grown by 14% since last year, fueled by higher home sales prices and new construction.
Garbage collection fee stays the same
Curry’s budget does not change the residential garbage collection fee which is one of the lowest in the state and has not been raised since 2010.
The city suspended curbside recycling for six months because its waste haulers struggled to hire enough drivers to cover all the routes for picking up garbage, yard waste and recycling. The service resumed in April.
The city has been reassessing its contracts so waste haulers can pay more to attract drivers, but any additional cost will be picked up by the general fund rather than through higher garbage fees.
Jacksonville charges residents a solid waste fee of $12.65 per month to help cover the city’s cost of picking up household garbage, recyclable items, and yard waste. The solid waste fee is tacked on to property taxes bills as an annual assessment of $151.80 for the entire year.
A special City Council committee examined raising the fee to $18 per month or higher, but the committee did not recommend a fee hike.
For the second year in a row, city coffers will benefit from a $171 million payment from the federal government’s American Recovery Act, bringing the two-year total to about $343 million and adding to the city’s capacity for doing projects that otherwise would be stuck in the wings.
Jacksonville gained far more than other Florida cities from the recovery act because of the city’s status as a consolidated city-county government.
Chief Administrative Officer Brian Hughes told reporters after the address that $73 million from the federal funds this year would be put into reserves. The future mayor and city council would be able to use the money “to supplement” funds for their projects, Hughes said.
The funding also could help if the city is not successful in getting reimbursement from the Federal Emergency Management Agency for its pandemic-related costs, including extra pay received by city workers.
Curry looked forward to seeing the next mayor “cutting a lot of ribbons” by finishing the projects started by his administration. As his last year comes to a close, he said he would offer his successor one main piece of advice: listen to the critics but ultimately follow their gut instinct.
“Take the criticism,” Curry advised. “Take the hits. Take the scars. You’ll get some things done, maybe not everything, but you get more done than sitting in your office worried about what everybody thinks.”