The Courage of Alvin Brown

If you squint just right, you can start to make out a pattern.

Last year, Jacksonville faced a budget crisis. Mayor Alvin Brown dropped on the City Council, those poor bastards, $61 million in proposed cuts to balance the ledger, more than half of which he didn’t bother specifying.

Had Councilmembers gone along with it, the results would have been disastrous: hundreds of laid-off cops and firefighters, closed libraries and parks, etc. But Brown knew they wouldn’t. The Council did the heavy lifting, the ugly and necessary thing. And Alvin Brown washed his hands of the Council’s property tax hike.

This year, Jacksonville faces a pension crisis. The police and fire pension alone is $1.7 billion in the red. Everyone who looks at the math realizes you can’t make it work without revenue, and that means another tax hike.

Everyone except Alvin Brown, who wants to raid JEA for $40 million a year — without the utility raising its rates. Maybe JEA will go along and figure out a way to forestall rate increases — at least, if I’m being cynical, until after next year’s election — but at some point we’re going to have to pay the piper. (There’s no such thing as free money.) Or it will again be incumbent upon the City Council to do the heavy lifting, and Mayor Brown will again keep his fingerprints off the tough decisions.

That’s not leadership. It’s cowardice.

The mayor has made a no-new-taxes pledge the centerpiece of both his administration and re-election campaign, the Rubicon he will not cross even as the realities of the day dictate its necessity. This mentality — pervasive long before Brown took office — is holding this city back.

Jacksonville is hardly suffocating under an oppressive tax regime. (I spent three years in the People’s Republic of Philadelphia, where I learned about wage taxes and business privilege taxes and permits you had to purchase to park on your own block. This isn’t that. Not even close.) A new report out last week, in fact, ranked Jacksonville as having the sixth-lowest tax burden in the nation.

This isn’t a good thing, as a look through JCCI’s quality-of-life indicators demonstrates: 25 percent of our children live in poverty; mass transit is abysmal, and biking just about anywhere means taking your life in your hands; high school graduation rates, while improving, are too low, and too few adults have college degrees; Downtown still has too few residents, too much vacant office space and too little in the way of vibrant retail and nightlife.

The cities that will thrive in the competitive 21st century aren’t those that embrace cheapness as a virtue, but those that invest in themselves, that turn themselves into places where young, innovative people actually want to live, that have educated workforces and healthy environments and tolerant, diverse populations. (To wit: Philly, for all the griping about taxes, is resurgent.)

We can build that here. But doing so takes courage, a willingness to own up to our shortcomings and tackle them head-on, rather than politicians telling people what they want to hear to get through the next campaign.

I’ve been here only a few months, so I hope that I’m wrong, but the pattern I’m seeing from Alvin Brown doesn’t bode well.