EDITOR'S NOTE

Unseemly Ultimatum

Jacksonville mayor's office says approve pension deal 
or face big cuts to the libraries and other services

Jacksonville Main Library
Posted

• Save Jax Libraries, savejaxlibraries.com

• Contact Mayor Alvin Brown at 630-1776 
or mayorbrown@coj.net.

• To contact your City Council member, go here.

Jacksonville Public Library must cut 13.9 percent — $2.4 million — of its expenses for the budget year beginning Oct. 1.

The city has told each department to cut that amount from their budgets so that the pain of the $64 million deficit is spread evenly.

The Board of Library Trustees decided at a June 13 meeting to handle the required cuts this way, in order of priority:

• Reduce hours at the Main Library.

• End Sunday service throughout the city.

• Close the Maxville, Brentwood, San Marco, Willowbranch, University Park and Beaches locations.

• Cut the materials budget by $251,000.

If all of this sounds familiar, that's because JPL has faced drastic cuts like these for the last several years. As tax revenues have fallen, the library competes with the needs of other departments — police, fire, infrastructure — and usually comes up short.

That's not to say that these other areas are not important, but libraries' contributions to their neighborhoods are more interwoven — and the lack of them is more insidious.

At a time when public school budgets are also stressed, public libraries are usually there to pick up the slack. For the many Jacksonville residents who can't afford a home computer or a connection to the Internet, the library is an essential resource for researching school projects, learning computer skills, finding and applying for jobs, improving literacy and more.

But if a neighborhood library is closed, how easy will it be for a family with limited transportation to go to the next nearest location?

"You should understand that closing a library means removing all of the books, shelves, etc., and leaving an empty building (presumably to be used for some other purpose or sold)," Harry Reagan, president of Friends of the Jacksonville Public Library, wrote to library supporters and local media. (Full disclosure: Reagan is my father.)

This year, the library — and every other city department — must also compete with the money required to fund the city's pension funds, the largest of which is the Police & Fire Pension Fund. Actually, that's been one of the biggest reasons the city's budget has been in such dire straits for the last several years.

But the mayor's office is using the secretly negotiated deal it made with the public safety unions as a gun to the head of these departments and the Jacksonville City Council. If the Council approves the deal, the cuts would only need to 
be 4 percent.

"If City Council adopts the pension reform agreement (2013-366), the city will save approximately $45 million next year. With retirement reform, the projected budget deficit will drop substantially — from $64 million to $19 million — and city departments/agencies such as the Jacksonville Public Library will be able to stave off the worst of the budget cuts," Chris Hand, the mayor's chief of staff, wrote in an email to Reagan.

"Until retirement reform is enacted, we have no choice but to present the budget consistent with the current law, which produces that approximately $64 million deficit."

But the pension deal has several problems, and the City Council has even hired its own attorney to help sort through the actual savings — or lack thereof — and the legalities.

The Florida Times-Union is suing Mayor Alvin Brown and the PFPF, alleging that they violated Florida's Sunshine Law by conducting collective bargaining in private.

The mayor says the pension deal will save $1.1 billion over 30 years and almost $50 million this year. The PFPF will use $21.3 million of the money it receives from the state — which is meant to shore up benefits for public safety workers — to lower the contribution from the city for the next fiscal year. But that's a one-time payment. Also, the pension agreement keeps the expected rate of return at the current 7.75 percent for the next two years before gradually lowering it to 7 percent by 2017. Is that a real savings?

It seems unlikely that it will all be sorted out in time to save this year's budget. And, although Jacksonville sorely needs it, no one is willing to broach the topic of raising taxes.

The Board of Library Trustees might have some powerful allies in this battle. Incoming Council President Bill Gulliford, a former Atlantic Beach mayor and commissioner who represents the Beaches on the City Council, might have strong feelings about closing the Beaches branch. The incoming vice president is Clay Yarborough, who represents Arlington, where the University Park branch is slated to be shuttered.

Meanwhile, library service continues to crumble. One way to stop the destruction is to create an independent library tax district like the successful examples that exist in Alachua and Orange counties. The proposal suggests creating an independent board — the mayor, three City Councilmembers and the Duval County School Board chair — that would set a millage rate dedicated to sustaining the libraries, eliminating the amount taken from the overall millage rate. This would free the library from a constricting annual budget structure and allow it to plan projects, renovations, improvements and programs.

Bill Brinton, Florida Sen. Audrey Gibson (D-Jacksonville) and Reagan cofounded Save Jax Libraries and kicked off a petition drive to place a straw ballot on the fall 2014 ballot to gauge support for an independent library district.

They need 26,000 signatures verified 180 days before that election. They currently have about 10,000. Every signature they collect now can be used to show the mayor and City Council that Jacksonville supports its libraries.

We cannot quietly count on libraries being there in the future. Our complacency will result in library vacancies — and big holes in our neighborhoods — while the city tries to fill the giant hole in its budget. 

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