What this country needs is less government. That’s the argument most conservatives make. Given what’s been happening with our taxpayer dollars lately, it’s hard not to agree with them.
Several of our local politicians have been using our money to do some questionable things.
State Attorney Angela Corey spent $235,000 to increase her pension and that of senior prosecutor Bernie de la Rionda. Corey told The Florida Times-Union she plans to do the same for 17 more prosecutors, but it’s not clear how much that will cost.
Strangely enough, this is legal: A 2001 state law allows state agencies to upgrade the accrual rate for certain workers. The change allowed workers to increase their benefits for the years before the rate increased from 1.6 percent to 2 percent. Affected employees may pay for their own upgrade, according to the law.
It cost $108,439 for Corey and $126,653 for de la Rionda to upgrade each women’s 14 years of service that was elgible. Both attorneys make $150,076 a year. With the upgrade, which adds about $8,300 a year, their annual pensions will be about $65,000, according to the Times-Union.
Corey said she’s paying for these pension upgrades with savings her office made. Surely, there can’t be anything more worthwhile to do with that money.
Compare that to $261,000 spent on iPads by Duval County Public Schools in December. You might think iPads are a great learning tool for students. And you’d be right, except that’s not where these tablets were headed. The 350 iPads were bought for principals, assistant principals and district-level administrators.
So we're thankful that, when Superintendent Nikolai Vitti learned about these plans, he had the devices collected and given to pre-K programs for 4-year-olds to use for math and reading. Vitti has stressed the importance of shifting resources from the district level to the needs of students; this was a good save on a bad initial decision.
Then, there’s former Duval County Clerk of Courts Jim Fuller, who spent $46,000 on his unsuccessful quest to stay in office despite term limits. He said the suit wasn’t just about him but for any clerks who succeed him.
Fuller approved raises for 30 employees as his term came to an end — $214,000 worth. Fuller had awarded bonuses to those same employees, but the City Council vetoed that.
Fuller authorized $141,000, on his last day as clerk, for items like blinds, printers and office equipment. New Clerk of Courts Ronnie Fussell canceled the raises and most of those purchases.
Not to be outdone, Steve Wallace, the former president of Florida State College at Jacksonville, wasn’t satisfied with his $1 million golden parachute. He managed to convince the board chair to upgrade his phone and iPad and keep his $797-a-month Chevrolet Tahoe through June. Apparently the rest of the board was unaware of this sweetened deal; they had specifically voted against allowing Wallace to keep the SUV.
This was after he was forced out because the problems during his tenure kept snowballing — mistakenly awarded Pell grants, automated changes in students’ majors and exorbitant expenses, to name a few. Taxpayers have paid enough for this man and his mishandling of a public institution meant to provide advanced education to those who might not otherwise have the opportunity.
Now, Jacksonville is launching a three-month trial of a parking app created by Streetline Inc. Sensors are being installed at about 100 parking spaces along Laura Street, allowing motorists to find available spaces with iPhone or Android mobile devices.
The pilot program will have no cost to taxpayers, but if the city wants to continue the program, the cost per parking space would be $15 to $20 a month — $18,000 to $24,000 a year — for those initial spaces. If the city wanted to expand it to the more than 1,600 metered spots downtown, the cost would balloon — $288,000 to $384,000 a year.
Although there is a widespread perception that downtown parking is scarce, the metered spots, plus 40,000 garage and parking lot spots, are plentiful. Complaints usually stem from those who feel they have to park too far away from their destination. But an app that asks people to use their smartphones while driving and encourages more driving in the core instead of taking advantage of mass transit is not a good idea or a good use of tax dollars.
Pension upgrades, iPads, attorney fees for personal gain, SUVs, parking apps — are these the best uses of our money? They’re just the tip of the iceberg. There are many more examples at the local, state and federal levels of government.
But despite Jacksonville’s supposed distaste for tax increases, 64 percent of those polled by University of North Florida in early February would support a small increase in property taxes, if those taxes go toward something they deem worthy: public education.
Now, if we can just ensure that those taxes are well spent.
Anti-government activists point to examples like these as proof that government needs to be downsized, or nearly eliminated if you believe some extremists. However, there are important functions that government addresses that the private sector or individuals cannot, such as representing the people’s interests in court and providing education to all students, no matter their background. There are many more.
Those who make their living working for the government should remember they are entrusted with great power. With that power — and trust — comes great responsibility.
Meanwhile, it’s up to the rest of us to hold these people accountable.