Aug. 14--If the doors of the old Duval County Courthouse were unlocked, the building would make a good haunted house -- its long corridors and vaulted courtrooms have been empty as a tomb since everyone moved to the new courthouse in 2012.
Mayor Alvin Brown wants to spend $4.2 million to demolish the building and get that Bay Street site a big step closer to future redevelopment along downtown's riverfront.
It's among $23 million Brown seeks to invest in downtown, which in turn is part of $235 million of projects that Brown wants to pay for by borrowing -- a package that is shaping up as one of the most complex pieces of his budget.
On Friday, the City Council'sFinance Committee will take its first in-depth look at what amount of debt the city can afford for Brown's "City of Opportunity" blueprint.
Already, City Council leaders are saying they expect to substantially scale it back, and have called on Brown to rank the projects in order of priority to help council decide what makes the cut.
But Brown has declined to rank the projects and will seek to convince council member the city can afford all of them. He has said the time has come to "seize the moment" for future generations.
"We think this is a really strong investment in Jacksonville, notably downtown," said David DeCamp, spokesman for Brown. "We want to work with them (council members) to make the case to invest in the city."
City Council Finance Committee Chairman Richard Clark said before council can evaluate any particular project, the first order of business Friday will be figuring out how much the city can take on in new debt.
"We all want to invest in downtown," he said. "We all want to move the needle forward. But we can only afford what we can afford. You've got to be mindful of what will move the needle the most."
Clark and City Council President Clay Yarborough said they expect the council will substantially scale back the amount of debt. Yarborough asked Brown to rank the projects in order of priority. But Chris Hand, chief of staff for Brown, said the capital improvement projects list proposed by the mayor is the administration's priority list.
"We believe that all of these CIP projects are important in not only growing the revenue base but also advancing critical COJ (city of Jacksonville) and community needs," Hand wrote in an email to Yarborough, adding that many worthwhile projects didn't make the cut.
Yarborough said that if the administration won't rank the projects, it will fall on City Council to decide the order on its own.
"What they've done is essentially said that everything is a No. 1 priority," Yarborough said. "It basically leaves the ultimate leadership up to council to decide what it believes are the top priorities."
The projects range in cost from $43 million for expanding Trail Ridge Landfill to several hundred thousand dollars for individual park projects.
"I'm going to want to know how they scored the various projects that made it on the list," City Council member Lori Boyer said. "How did they decide? If we have to cut 20 percent of them or 50 percent, which ones are going to get cut. It should be the lower-scoring ones."
In a change from previous years, the city's Finance Department did not convene a "scoring committee" to assess the merits of projects that various departments submitted for consideration in the capital improvement program.
The scoring committee, comprised of department heads, previously evaluated submitted projects based on seven criteria and recommend which ones should go into the budget.
Hand told the council Finance Committee that this year, the administration shaped the capital improvement program by getting feedback from City Council members, including the council's Special Budget Analysis Committee.
Individual departments used some prioritization for their requests, according to documents used by the administration in assembling the list. However, the administration didn't do any numerical rankings to prioritize a master list of projects.
Yarborough said City Council members didn't sign off on $235 million in debt, which is a fourfold jump from the current fiscal year. He said council members would have reacted differently if they'd known that debt jump had been part of the discussions leading up Brown's unveiling of his budget.
"If council members had know there would be a 400 percent-plus increase in the amount of borrowing and we would be handed a Christmas in July budget, I believe the reception of that would have been different," he said.
David Bauerlein: (904) 359-4581
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