Nate Monroe: One of Jacksonville mayor's final acts might turn out to be his best

Nate Monroe
Florida Times-Union
Construction work on Girvin Road in August 2017.

COMMENTARY | Mayor Lenny Curry will propose legislation in the coming months increasing Jacksonville's gas tax by 6 cents to jump start a nearly $1 billion campaign to complete backlogged road projects — many of which will include adding bike lanes and sidewalks to busy thoroughfares and will include drainage improvements — as well as financing a Jacksonville Transportation Authority effort to modernize the Skyway and upgrade bus stops and other transit infrastructure throughout the city.

It would be the largest targeted public works campaign since the $2.2 billion Better Jacksonville Plan. And by dedicating a source of revenue to road projects the city would otherwise have to fund year by year, the extra gas tax revenue would free up money in the annual budget that Curry will propose spending on a long-term, large-scale effort to phase out septic tanks and extend water and sewer service to some of the city's oldest and long-neglected neighborhoods, a long-term goal of environmentalists, city officials and civic leaders.

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That would give the gas tax increase — which would double the current 6-cent levy to 12 cents, the maximum allowed under state law, though 2046 — a bit of a multiplier effect, maximizing the amount and types of work that can be done throughout the city.

City Hall would split the revenue down the middle with the Jacksonville Transportation Authority, which would take on several road projects in addition to work upgrading the Skyway and adding another boat to the St. Johns River Ferry fleet.

The city will prioritize getting a lot of work done quickly. Curry's office is aiming to issue about $300 million in bonds to begin work on about 50 separate projects within the next five years. There is good reason for that: Curry's office believes the next 10 years will be the most effective revenue-generating years for the gas tax, before efficiency standards and clean fuels significantly stymie growth in gas tax proceeds.

Curry could've sat out the tax increase

There is a potent cynicism in some circles about Curry's administration, and he has weathered a few scandals in which he had at least some role in creating. But his gas tax plan on the table is significant — significant financially, significant politically, significant in its potential to do a lot of good.

Curry, the former chairman of the Republican Party of Florida, is proposing, in an incredibly polarized national moment, a tax increase. Consider that. After a few punishing years, and a little less than halfway through his second term, he could have easily sat this out. He is, commendably, putting forward a workable plan instead.

"Investing in the transition from septic tanks to sewer assists in the fulfillment of decades-old promises and also boosts public health, protects environmental treasures like the St. Johns River and its tributaries, and improves quality of life in (Jacksonville) neighborhoods," Chris Hand, who served as chief of staff to former Mayor Alvin Brown, a Democrat, said Tuesday.

The plan also represents a significant evolution in Curry's position on taxes and an official recognition that City Hall is simply at a breaking point: Jacksonville is one of the lowest taxed cities in one of the lowest taxed states in the nation. Multiple studies by multiple civic groups over the years have repeatedly found the same thing: Jacksonville's run-it-on-the-cheap mentality hasn't stopped the city from falling behind its peers in economic development and quality of life measures, but it has unquestionably suppressed needed civic investment.

Jacksonville mayors tend to figure that out given enough time: Curry is the third Republican mayor of Jacksonville in the past two decades to propose either a tax or fee increase in his second term.

There's no easy way to raise money for the city

There are good-faith arguments to be had about the gas tax — its fairness, its effect on people with lower incomes. But there is no bloodless way to raise money for City Hall: Even the most progressive option available, a property tax increase, would affect people with limited income. And in any case, there is no political will in City Hall to raise property taxes. The council shot down a small proposed increase last year. It's this, or no revenue for at least the next two years (and likely much longer than that). 

Many factors, and primarily the price of crude oil, affect local gas prices, and local gas taxes by and large go completely unnoticed. Thirty-one Florida counties, including conservative Clay and Nassau, already levy a 12-cent tax. Some Republican council members will bellyache about Curry's proposed increase, but that's only feigned outrage. 

In 2014, the City Council, led by a Republican and controlled by a majority of Republicans, extended the 6-cent gas tax until 2036 to pay for more than two dozen road projects. Hardly anyone cared, though in the meantime JTA — which managed the projects — completed about 60 percent of the projects, with the remaining ones either under construction or in design, according to authority records.

Some local officials tend to think of the gas tax a bit like a user fee: Unlike, say, a property tax increase, state law limits the use of gas tax proceeds to road and transit projects, so it's not like this money gets absorbed by government salaries and overhead. Curry's plan to quickly bond out hundreds of millions in work also helps to ensure the money gets used for that purpose by the next administration and City Council (City Hall tends to struggle with continuity).

The gas tax is also a way to get buy-in from out-of-county commuters and other travelers who use Jacksonville roads.  

The proposed road projects are simply line items already in the city's five-year capital plan — the council has already voted on making these projects a priority. And there has long been a civic consensus on the need to phase out septic tanks, perhaps the most tangible representation of the city's failure to invest in older neighborhoods since the city-county consolidation in 1968. Failing tanks also leak nitrogen into local waterways.

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There might be some debate about JTA's modernization of the Skyway, but the agency is also set to piggyback on the city roadwork by upgrading more than 100 bus stops in Northwest Jacksonville and ensuring 800 more throughout the city are brought into compliance with the Americans with Disabilities Act standards.

The property tax rate should be higher. There is tremendous wealth in the city that isn't participating enough in the civic good. But it's also easy to talk about Jacksonville's money problems in the abstract. Any plan is going to come with some pain and fall a bit short when it's put down on paper. That is simply what coming up with a plan entails.

The 2023 mayoral race to replace Curry, who is term-limited, has started strikingly early — with at least three candidates either already running or set to announce, and more than $2 million in campaign cash already in play. That has somewhat obscured the fact that Curry has two years left in office.

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Some city officials and residents will simply react to this plan with distrust. I believe Curry has earned a great deal of that, and it will be a burden he will have to carry when selling the public on this plan and on anything else he hopes to do with his remaining time in office. His pugilistic political style grew tiresome. Some of his past efforts to address inequality, crime and quality of life have carried the patina of gimmickry. There is of course the JEA-sale saga.

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But a trusted source of mine recently told me something I also believe to be true: "It's never too late to do the right thing." This gas tax plan is the real deal: A workable, realistic, sustainable plan that invests money across the entire city and can be leveraged to help remedy one of Jacksonville consolidated government's oldest failures — neighborhoods that lack city water and sewer service. There's nothing gimmicky about that.

This infrastructure plan isn't quite Curry's swan song, but it's one of his final acts. It could be his best.

Nate Monroe's City column appears every Thursday and Sunday.