As the U.S. economy continues to struggle, the nation’s largest city in land area, according to local lore, is facing tough economic decisions.
Mayor Alvin Brown, a Democrat, and the Jacksonville City Council mostly made up of Republicans are challenged to finalize a budget without alienating supporters.
One popular long term program, a substance abuse program, appears headed for the chopping block.
The program is sponsored by the Jacksonville Sheriff’s Office. The city website described Matrix House:
The largest program, Matrix House, is an in-house substance abuse treatment program provided in partnership with our contracted provider, River Region Human Services, Inc. A maximum of 135 inmates are placed in an intensive four month program that addresses all facets of addictions. Matrix House clients receive group counseling as well as one on one counseling and aftercare. During the past year, 356 inmates (222 males and 134 females) completed the Matrix House program.
One young woman who works in substance abuse counseling was so devastated she contacted The US Report in hopes of bringing attention to a program she believes is vital to our community.
A columnist for a blog site has written an article about the program’s potential demise, asking, “Is Jacksonville simply to turn its back on its troubled citizens…?”
Meanwhile, the mayor summed it up from his point of view:
General fund revenues are projected to fall by $12.7 million in the coming year while the city’s pension obligations will increase by $46.4 million, a 45 percent increase. There are $150.3 million in pension obligations in the 2012-13 budget, an amount that represents 16 percent of all general fund spending.
In keeping with campaign promises, Brown is determined to “hold the line” on taxes.
In the last budget season under Brown’s predecessor, taxes were a very hot issue as Council raised the property tax rate again after then mayor John Peyton had instituted new fees for stormwater drainage and garbage pickup.
Hearings were held, with many residents taking part. It became obvious there was a disconnect between Council and some departments when it came to a number of funding allocations.
City residents weren’t happy. In the next election, the head of council and others were voted out and it’s likely Peyton, a Republican, would’ve experienced the same had his term not been up.
As Jacksonville approaches a budget deadline of October 1, Sheriff John Rutherford is struggling to deal with sizable cuts. News4Jax said:
According to the mayor's office, there will be a reduction of 490 city positions through attrition and layoffs. Of those positions, 221 will be layoffs, mostly affect the Jacksonville Sheriff's Office and Public Works Department.
Some supporters of Matrix House have criticized the sheriff, saying he is responsible for cutting funding. That’s misleading, however. The mayor proposes the budget, leaving department heads and chiefs to come up with a means of meeting the numbers. If Rutherford has to choose between uniformed officers and a rehab program, it’s natural that he will opt for the officers.
Ironically, Rutherford doesn’t get to choose who is cut. That’s done by a lottery system rather than by quality.
What the city needs is a viable discussion about proposed cuts and a debate on whether the cuts will spark larger spending down the road.
Theoretically, the addict we help today may return to being a productive member of society, whereas an offender who receives no treatment options may become one of the recycled criminals prosecutors face time and time again. One attorney I know told me you see many of the same people repeatedly coming through the court.
There’s a lot of information online about Matrix House, but it would help supporters make their case better if accountability in terms of recidivism and success stories were provided. If a nuts and bolts case for success can be made, perhaps budget hawks can find other means of cutting the budget. A F.A.Q. sheet based on hard numbers would be useful.
What is the cost of incarceration versus the cost of successful treatment?
One sizable figure in the budget is $23,775,594 for Indigent Health. A quirky figure is the $5,000 for “scholarships” to pay for people to attend an environmental summit. It’s likely that a line by line reading of the budget would spark lively debate depending on one’s values.
In the last budget session, quirks were found, from locally funded scholarships to one institution to half a million dollars for a study to determine whether to move the county fair site.
Jacksonville, like countless other cities across the nation, is having a get real moment. U.S. cities are feeling firsthand the impact of federal economic policies driven partly by a contracted domestic energy sector and partly by mismanagement of sectors like housing and manufacturing.
Not long ago, two dogs managed to get into my fenced back yard after they’d made a meal of some of the fencing. I phoned the animal control office to ask for assistance. The nice young woman on the phone told me she had no idea when an officer might be able to come out.
What do you do with two dogs making a mess of your yard while your own dogs go nuts at the intrusion and you can’t get in touch with the owner and the city can offer no help?
That’s a drop in the bucket compared to what we will eventually face, not just on a local level but on a federal level as well.
Personally speaking, the last line items I want to see cut are law enforcement and public works. Matrix House sounds like a good investment for the community. And we might want to take a look at funding animal control.
After all, this is Florida where just about every species on Earth ends up sooner or later.
(Commentary by Kay B. Day/July 24, 2012)