5 steps toward fulfilling Consolidation’s promises

The investment needed to fulfill the promises of consolidation is monumental and will take time – a challenge which just became more complicated with the fiscal and operational constraints COVID-19 has imposed on local agencies. But the first strides on the path toward equity do not require massive financial resources, and the actual investment might help support job creation and economic recovery. Five steps should be considered:

1. Define the Mission

Former Council President Warren Jones has framed the goal in terms of the benefits and shortcomings of consolidation. “I think consolidation has made all of the consolidated government more efficient and reduced the duplication of services,” Jones said in 2018. “The challenge today is how we provide those services in a fair manner to reach those neighborhoods that believe they have been left out. It’s going to take a mayor, council, and business community committed to make those capital improvements and improvements in human capital to turn those neighborhoods around.”

2. Make the Case

While the promised yet unfulfilled extension of services and infrastructure to all neighborhoods is reason enough to launch this effort, advocates will need to build a holistic business case that features the full array of benefits. For example, infrastructure can have a transformative effect on neighborhoods. As Warren Jones explained from his experience with the Grand Park initiative and other projects, “[t]hose kinds of improvements give pride in the neighborhood. People want to maintain their homes. It encourages private dollars to invest in those neighborhoods.” Beyond the neighborhood impacts, replacing failing septic tanks with water and sewer systems boost public health and protect environmental treasures like the St. Johns River and its tributaries. Building sidewalks promotes pedestrian safety, especially in areas where children walk to school.

Additionally, the work could have economic benefits. In 2018, then-former JEA CEO Paul McElroy described the impact of replacing septic tanks with three words: “Jobs. Jobs. Jobs.” McElroy opined that septic tank removal was “the most labor-intensive infrastructure on the planet” and would provide substantial employment. As former Mayor and JAX Chamber Chair John Delaney explained, “economic development stops at the end of a sewer line.” While infrastructure is not the only factor required for economic success, communities almost certainly cannot reach their full economic potential without it. This is especially true for neighborhoods hoping to develop a thriving business sector. As Warren Jones noted, Northwest Jacksonville has struggled to attract businesses in part because one of its most important thoroughfares, U.S. 1, lacks vital infrastructure. Above-ground septic tanks cause visual blight that discourages business growth.

3. Think Broadly

Those who lead the effort to keep promises would be wise to look through a telescope rather than a microscope. While water and sewer lines and the connections to those lines, paved roads, and sidewalks are the most discussed forms of unkept promises, leaders argue that infrastructure will only help if other needs are also addressed. Though former Mayor Alvin Brown and former Council President Bill Gulliford had their disagreements at City Hall, they are united in their strong belief that affordable housing must be part of the solution. “Affordable housing is critical to the future of this city and other cities,” said Gulliford. “You need to be proactive. If you’re going to bring neighborhoods back, you must have affordable housing.”

4. Planning is Key

Any serious effort will require sustainability. Elected leaders and community stakeholders should identify the exact needs and develop a comprehensive plan to meet those needs. While much of the key information probably exists in the city’s five-year CIP, bicycle and pedestrian priorities, Public Works and JEA water and sewer project lists and other sources, the successful fulfillment of past promises will require a consolidated and prioritized master plan and schedule to guide future mayoral administrations and city councils and keep the work on track regardless of who serves in elected office.

5. Dedicate Funding

Even the best planning may be for naught if the City does not identify a dedicated funding source. Fulfilling the unkept promises will not be an inexpensive proposition. As Alton Yates put it, “this is not a $10 million problem or a $30 million problem. It is probably a billion-dollar problem.” In 2014, the Task Force on Consolidated Government launched this effort with the recommendation that the City Council and relevant independent authorities devote set percentages of their annual capital budgets to addressing unfulfilled promises. However, nearly six years after the task force completed its work, City Council still has not incorporated that recommendation into the City of Jacksonville Charter or Ordinance Code.

Another funding source might be JEA. While some legal and financial limitations may govern how JEA utilizes ratepayer dollars, the authority at times has embraced a funding role in this process. An April 2019 presentation to the Jacksonville City Council stated that between 2019 and 2024, JEA would invest $1.2 billion in “expansion, renewal & replacement and environmental stewardship.” The post-2024 projection was $3 billion for “unfunded community issues: $2B in Septic Tank Phase Out and $1B in alternative water supplies.” While much has happened at JEA in the year since that presentation, the utility remains the local public institution with the most financial capacity to address Jacksonville water and sewer challenges.

A series of related options may be found in the tough financial decisions Mayor John Peyton made during the Great Recession. The three percent (3%) JEA franchise fee which Peyton championed in 2007 generates approximately $40 million in annual revenue. Under Article 21 of the City Charter, the City Council may increase the franchise fee to six percent (6%) through a supermajority vote. While it is not clear how much additional revenue an increase would raise, the City could utilize the nearly $40 million it is now collecting annually, any incremental funds generated from an enhanced franchise fee, or both. Assuming the City had operational capacity to perform the work, it could leverage these funds to meet more unfulfilled needs sooner rather than later.

Yet another potential solution emerged from the decennial Jacksonville Charter Revision Commission (CRC) process. Though COVID-19 intervened before the 2019-2020 CRC could present final recommendations to City Council and the Duval Legislative Delegation, one of its proposals is the creation of an Urban Core Development Authority. The purpose would be to “provide a singular focus on the infrastructure, governmental service needs and economic development of the Urban Core; establish and implement a master plan and coordinate public and private resources to address and resolve the poverty, socioeconomic and other disparities of the Urban Core” and ensure “the promises of consolidation to the Urban Core are finally met.”

Finally, the City of Jacksonville should look to leverage other sources of financing. COVID-19 may finally motivate the federal government to partner with state and local governments in addressing nearly $5 trillion in unmet national infrastructure needs. Public-private partnerships (P3s) could help supply long-term capital while assisting with cost and project management. Federal, state, and philanthropic grant funding may be available.

A recommitment to promises made

While this list of potential tools is neither comprehensive nor exhaustive, officials seem to share former Council President Greg Anderson’s belief in action. “We need to acknowledge the challenges and put in place a plan to address the deficiencies, whether it is through dedicated source of revenue or a carve out in the capital budget,” said Anderson in 2018. “We should be able to look ourselves in the mirror and acknowledge we have work to do.” Former Mayor and current Council Vice President Tommy Hazouri shared that forward-looking perspective. “I think of this issue not so much as promises not kept, but promises that have yet to be fulfilled,” he said.

For his part, Alton Yates remains a consolidation supporter. But he believes the work started five decades ago will remain incomplete without a citywide recommitment to keeping all of the promises made. “We have all of the tools necessary to be the greatest cities in the United States. Whatever quality of life you want, you can find it in Jacksonville. That is a result of consolidation,” Yates observed in his 2018 interview. “But I don’t think we can ever consider consolidation the success we dreamed of until we address and solve the problems of people who live in all neighborhoods.”

An old adage wisely counsels that a journey a thousand miles begins with a single step. Especially in the COVID-19 era, the City of Jacksonville and related independent authorities will not have the fiscal and operational capacity to fulfill fifty-year-old promises overnight. But they can be fulfilled over time if our community commits to a sustained, comprehensive, and funded mission to improve schools, pave roads, build sidewalks, replace septic tanks, enhance drainage, and otherwise extend the benefits of consolidation to all Jacksonville citizens and neighborhoods. That effort will truly honor the legacies of Jake Godbold and Janet Owens.

Guest editorial by Chris Hand. Hand is a Jacksonville attorney who previously served as Chief of Staff at the consolidated City of Jacksonville and as Press Secretary for former U.S. Senator Bob Graham. With Senator Graham, he co-authored America, the Owner’s Manual: You Can Fight City Hall – and Win. Hand later authored the 50th anniversary update to A Quiet Revolution: The Consolidation of Jacksonville-Duval County & the Dynamics of Urban Political Reform. Most of this column originally appeared in that update, which was published in 2019.