THE CITY IS BROKE

For the better part of last week, I sat in the budget review meetings led by Lenny Curry’s transition team Executive Director Sam Mousa, along with his “budget SWAT team” and the heads of every single department in Jacksonville City government. And when I say that I sat in them, I sat in all of them. I live-blogged these things. Every day. And I learned something.

Sit down if you’re standing. I’ve got a spoiler alert for you.

Ready?

The city of Jacksonville is broke.

When I say broke, I don’t mean that the paychecks won’t cash for city employees. What I do mean is that there has been an institutional neglect when it comes to infrastructure. Both the stuff that we can see, such as roads and bridges, and the stuff that we can’t see that nonetheless affects us.

Take the fleets of vehicles for Jacksonville Sheriff’s Office personnel and Fire & Rescue workers. Those departments probably wouldn’t mind. There are police cars on the road right now from 2007 and 2008, with some having more than 150K miles on them. They’ve had engine replacements, repair, etc. But here’s the thing.

Cop cars aren’t driven like normal cars. Jackrabbit starts, high-speed pursuits, idling during traffic stops, running speed traps and so on are all things that are done in the course of police business. Fire and Rescue vehicles have, except for high-speed chases, many of the same pressures.

We were told, during the campaign, that public safety was the straw that stirs the drink. OK, player. What happens now that we see that the issues aren’t as simple as hiring more cops, but actually making sure their cars, their TASERs, and their body armor and computer databases are on point? Fire and Rescue, similarly, needs upgraded radios. Where does the money come from?

Starved for resources. I have typed this phrase so much that I need a macro. And it doesn’t apply just to the needs of entities involved public safety.

The library acquisition budget has gone down by almost 50 percent in the last decade. The staff of the Human Rights Commission, likewise, cleaved almost in half — it can take them up to two years to investigate a complaint. Meanwhile, a city concern is buying retirees out of their health plans now; giving them a $125K lump sum before the city has to pay for their million-dollar heart transplant, as “heart and hypertension” is a massive cost to the city, and the balloon payment is coming due.

The city is broke. We are coming out of a time when interest rates have been kept so low that lending might as well have come with Groupons. And the top percentiles have reaped the benefit, as has the educated middle class who found a way to monetize its Stafford Loan funded skills. The rest? Remember that single mom Alvin Brown discovered late in his campaign, working two or three jobs just to pay the rent to a slumlord and buy McDonald’s for her kids? Well, stars — they’re just like us.

People often ask me why I’m a small-government guy, in terms of things like the Drug War, which (I keep saying) has bankrupted us and diverted resources away from real, must-have priorities to social control, the prison-industrial state, and a labyrinth of regulation that hasn’t actually curbed the problems. The most violent dealers? Meet them at the club, it’s going down; meet them at the mall, it’s going down. The convenience stores in Murray Hill and Lackawanna; the Section 8 apartment complexes on the Northside, and all kinds of other places where the Shoot ’Em Up of the Day happens.

America has pissed away its competitive advantage building a prison-police state for the sake of private equity markets. Jacksonville is no exception to that model. We built a state with entitlements for the poor, and corporate entitlements for the very rich. And who pays? What’s left of the middle class, and those rubes who believe that the certainties of yesteryear can be counted on today, much less tomorrow.

Alvin Brown just got back from San Francisco’s U.S. Conference of Mayors. Do you think he’ll tell us, before he vacates his office, what has worked elsewhere? He goes to these damned conferences, and Curry will, too, yet we still have the same decades-old unimaginative policy thought. It’s time to move on. Who has the juice to make that happen?

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