JACKSONVILLE, Fla. -- Calling Mayor Alvin's Brown budget "deeply troubling," Jacksonville City Councilwoman Lori Boyer ripped into his Capital Improvement Program after uncovering what she calls millions in "inaccuracies, miscalculations and unanswered questions."
Boyer told members of the council's Finance Committee Friday that she'd stayed up late into the previous night examining the mayor's 2014-2015 CIP, and found it riddled with errors. The Capital Improvement Program is the portion of the budget devoted to short-term capital projects and equipment purchases, like road improvements and technology upgrades. "They're just not reliable," she said of the numbers the administration has provided.
A lawyer with a background in construction and finance, Boyer examined whether money requested in the upcoming budget was consistent with prior appropriations or estimates. In the four examples she detailed at Friday's workshop, errors ranged from million dollar typos to projects that appear to have exceeded appropriation limits, and dedicated tax dollars being misspent on unrelated projects.
"These are not small numbers," she told the committee, which has been holding budget workshops over the past two weeks. "It would be totally irresponsible for us to accept this [proposed CIP] without some clarity on these points."
City Chief Financial Officer Ronnie Belton and his staff promised to review Boyer's concerns and provide answers. City budget analyst Robyn Lawrence, who compiles the CIP, acknowledged that some of Boyer's points were valid. "That's definitely a mistake … that is definitely an error," she said in regards to stormwater fees being used to fix hazardous sidewalks.
Another error noted by Boyer, in which the Trail Ridge Landfill expansion appears to exceed its approved appropriation by $13 million, Lawrence promised to get back to the council with more information.
Councilmember John Crescimbeni thanked Lawrence for her "direct and straightforward" answers, but did not express the same confidence in the mayor's budget.
"This goes back to what I was talking about earlier: My lack of comfort of being able to rely on what's before me based on past history. And that was before Ms. Boyer showed me her four examples." He added, "you can imagine where my comfort level went."
Boyer said her interest in the CIP was piqued when she learned leftover CIP dollars are sometimes shifted to funding pools for pet projects. But she says she is particularly concerned this budget cycle, because of a change in the way the administration is seeking funds. In previous years, Boyer says, appropriations have been meted out over time. This year, the mayor wants several projects fully appropriated the first year – potentially giving council less oversight as a project progresses.
This year's CIP also relies on an uptick in borrowed dollars – an increase from roughly $30 million last fiscal year to $223 million – which has some concerned about the cost of debt service.
"This is an election-year budget," Boyer told First Coast News, explaining the spending priorities have more to do with appealing to voters than prior year's priorities. "But before we can approve it, we have to have clarity on what we're approving."
Mayoral spokesperson David DeCamp says: "We stand by the budget. If you attended the meeting we answered many of the questions. Each year we make changes and correct any errors as part of the budget process. If certain members offer questions or concerns, we work with them to resolve it. We agreed to work with council throughout the meeting to provide information and appreciated the Council's effort to work with us on any changes."
The next meeting of the Finance Committee is next Thursday.