In the last two Avengers movies, our heroes had to deal with Thanos, a cosmic villain who sought to make half of the galaxy’s inhabitants disappear with a snap of his Infinity Gauntlet. Jacksonville has its own Thanos. Emboldened by reelection, Mayor Lenny Curry is doing his best to make the great things about Jacksonville disappear—all the while lining his cronies’ pockets and padding his political legacy.
Lately, I have written about Duval County Public Schools’ efforts to hold a sales-tax referendum in order to pay for repairs to deteriorating schools. Flouting the Florida Constitution, Jacksonville City Council has been stonewalling, presumably at the mayor’s behest. Now we know why. In the first of two political bombshells last week, the Florida Times-Union reported that Sam Mousa, Curry’s outgoing chief administrator, called school board member Warren Jones and told him that he could get the City Council to approve the referendum ... if the board would pay him an outrageous consulting fee and agree to give $150 million of the sales tax revenues to charter schools. Of course, Mousa’s proximity to Curry suggests that this is the mayor’s idea, and that Curry is willing to hold the kids of Duval County hostage until his demands are met.
So, do Jacksonville’s charter schools need the money? First of all, a Florida Department of Education Fixed Capital Outlay report shows that last year, Duval County charter schools received about $7,893,111 million in capital funds, while public schools received only $2,680,072 million. That is a $5,213,039 million difference. Second, the sales-tax referendum statute, Section 212.055(6), permits the sales tax revenues to only be spent on capital projects. Thus, giving charter schools too much of the revenues only increases the disparity shown above. Third, there is no evidence that our charter schools are suffering any maintenance problems. Most charter schools are new, while our public school facilities are some of the oldest in the state. Finally, the School Board’s plan already shares money with charter schools on the same building-square-footage formula that is being used for public schools.
Then another bombshell dropped. Curry announced that the city of Jacksonville would give his friend Shad Khan $233 million to develop Lot J. That is on top of the $39 million Curry has earmarked to demolish the Hart Bridge ramps and funnel traffic to Khan’s proposed development. Why is the city giving Khan $233 million, most of it in cash, not tax breaks? Khan is worth $6.7 billion. He does not need the money. The development involves building residential condos (which no one earning a middle-class income will ever be able to afford), a “boutique” hotel, an office tower and restaurants. That sounds like a commercial development, not a public development like a park. Ironically, the city will build 1,330 parking spaces, something Curry refused to do for The Jacksonville Landing.
Even worse, Curry has designated Lot J as a Federal Opportunity Zone. Opportunity Zones are supposed to be used to lower taxes in distressed neighborhoods to entice developers to invest. Simply put, they were designed to benefit an area like Northwest Jacksonville. Remember the Northwest? That is the part of town where Curry cannot get pools open for poor kids to use during the summer. (How does the park director still have a job?) Lot J is also about 2.9 miles from Downtown. Who will want to drive there after work, especially considering the traffic jams that will be created by the demolition of the ramps?
Next, it was announced that JEA was inviting sale offers. During his reelection campaign, Curry promised not to submit any legislation to sell our community-owned utility. But Curry was cheerleading a sale the very day that the JEA board made the announcement. Indeed, such a transaction could pay for Khan’s incentives and clear Jacksonville’s debt—putting a feather in the mayor’s cap at the expense of JEA employees and consumers. So much for campaign promises.
Then there was another announcement. The Jacksonville Beach Pier will be closed for two years to repair damage done by Hurricane Matthew. You remember the Pier? That is the place where people go to fish because they cannot afford the boats that Curry’s donors own. Even though the hurricane was nearly three years ago, and the repairs done in February 2018 allowed fishing only at high tide, Curry is just now getting around to fixing it.
Like Thanos, Curry is trying to make great things disappear. He is trying to make $150 million disappear when it is desperately needed to repair our aging public schools. He is trying to make the Hart Bridge ramps disappear, along with $39 million to tear them down. He is trying to make $233 million disappear for the benefit of a billionaire. He is trying to make our public utility, JEA, disappear. He is trying to make the Pier disappear for two years, if not forever. He is trying to make The Landing disappear. By now it should be obvious: Curry is the one who needs to disappear.
Bork is a Jacksonville-based attorney with more than 20 years’ experience.