In their Monday morning meeting at City Hall, the Duval County Legislative Delegation unanimously elected both their next chair and vice chair before ceding the floor to constituents as they look for input before heading to Tallahassee for committee meetings ahead of the 2019 legislative session.
“I can’t promise to be as entertaining and colorful as Senator Bean,” Rep. Jason Fischer said of Aaron Bean, the Duval County Legislative Delegation’s outgoing chair, after he was unanimously elected by his peers to lead the city-run office through 2019. “What I can promise the Delegation is efficiency.”
True to his word, Fischer quickly moved onto the next order of business.
“We still have one more piece of official business before people get to speak, and that is the election of our vice chair,” he said, before opening the floor to nominations.
Rep. Kimberly Daniels was the sole nominee, and delegation members unanimously voted her into the role.
With all official business over and done with, Fisher invited the first of 50 scheduled speakers to take the podium - Jacksonville Mayor Lenny Curry.
“Thank you Mr. Chairman, good morning members of the delegation,” Curry said, opening the meeting’s general public hearing portion. “I’d like to just take a moment to reflect on the sad events of yesterday.”
“Yesterday morning I got a phone call. I’m sure you’ve all seen and heard the news reports that two members of the JSO family that were involved in a terrible car accident. Throughout the day and into the evening we all got more details,” he said. “Just a moment to encourage all of us to be thinking of the immediate family and all of the brothers and sisters of the Jacksonville Sheriff’s Office.”
Curry then went on to thank the delegation for collaborating with him on past projects, such as grants, infrastructure investments, pension reform and job creation initiatives. “I want to thank all of you, each and every one of you, for your friendship, for your relationships, for how we always put partisanship aside to do what’s best and what’s right for Jacksonville.”
Curry then invited Jordan Elsbury, his Director of Intergovernmental Affairs, to speak to the delegation about the mayor’s priorities heading into 2019.
“As the mayor has expressed at the local level, the number one priority for the mayor’s office in Tallahassee this year will be public safety and infrastructure,” he said. “We’ll be attempting to tie every single one of our appropriations requests to that narrative.”
Next on deck was Jacksonville City Council President Aaron Bowman.
“Congratulations. All of you just went through a recent election,” he said. “You know that you’ve always got a partner here at City Council.”
Bowman said he didn’t have anything specific to ask the delegation for. He just wanted to fill them in on what the Council is up to. He spoke about three things: the Crime and Safety Taskforce, resilience to extreme weather events and homelessness.
Dozens of other local leaders and members of the community were then given the chance to speak to members of the delegation. Some notable requests put forth include:
- Warren Jones, Vice Chair of the Duval County School Board, who asked members to support a $500,000 investment in school safety, as was recommended by the Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School Public Safety Commission.
- Kevin Hyde, Interim President of Florida State College at Jacksonville, who asked members to consider proposed funding for a new STEM building near the 7-Eleven on State St. to house about 5,800 students.
- Dr. Pam Chally from the University of North Florida, who asked members to support UNF’s efforts to hire more advisors (career service, financial aid…) and STEM, health, logistics and analytics faculty.
- Dr. DeShanna Brown with Edward Waters College asked for help as the school tries to expand online degree programs, open an honors college and launch a pre-law concentration at their Criminal Justice Institute to “ensure that more African-American and minority students are in the pipelines to become state prosecutors.”
- Tim Rogers and Ronnie King from the Jacksonville Public Library asked delegation members to continue their support of state libraries. Rogers and King are hoping to see funding levels rise to 2008 levels over the next five years. They also asked for help expanding into Jacksonville’s urban core and northern parts of the city.
- Candice Brower from the Office of Criminal Conflict and Civil Regional Counsel, a 10-year-old statewide agency created to deal with the ballooning costs of appointing private counsel, mostly in criminal cases, also spoke. Brower said the organization she represents takes cases where the public defender has a conflict. According to Brower, they’re also the first line of defense for parents in dependency cases. Brower said state attorneys and public defenders got raises in the last legislative session, but their attorneys didn’t see any of that money. According to Brower, their attorneys have saved the state more than $330 million dollars since the agency was created.
- Amy Palmer from the Cultural Council of Greater Jacksonville, which is currently advocating on behalf of 26 Duval County organizations that were approved for fiscal year 2019-2020 grants, expressed concerns that state funding for Division of Cultural Affairs grants has fallen from $43 million in fiscal year 2015 to $2.6 million in the current fiscal year - a 93 percent reduction. According to Palmer, 75 percent of visitors in Florida participate in cultural activities, Florida’s nonprofits and arts and culture organizations support 88,000 jobs and nonprofits and arts organizations generate $4.7 billion in economic activity through their own expenditures and through event related spending by their audiences.
- Lisa Rinaman, the St. Johns Riverkeeper, raised several concerns she thought delegation members might be able to help with. She said efforts to reduce nutrient pollution to fight toxic green algae have helped, but sewage sludge from South Florida being trucked north and dumped at the headwaters of the St. Johns River is undermining water quality health throughout the entire watershed. According to Rinaman, more than 90,000 tons of sewage sludge were dumped into the St. Johns in 2017 alone. She also asked them to reactivate the Harmful Algal Bloom Taskforce and to develop a holistic solid waste management program that gives northeast Florida the same protections as south Florida.
- Jimmy Midyette from the Jacksonville Coalition for Equality spoke about the Florida Competitive Workforce Act, which would prohibit discrimination based on sexual orientation and gender identity or expression in employment, housing and public accommodations, and Senate Bill 84, which would ban conversion therapy. Midyette urged Delegation members to support both of those proposals in order to fight discrimination in Florida.
- John Wyche and Saundra Morene spoke on behalf of the Jacksonville Gullah Geechee Nation Community Development Corporation. They asked for more representation at the state level to help further their mission in Jacksonville. They also asked members to consider funding a museum of Gullah Geechee art and culture.
- Paul Martinez from the Boys and Girls Club of Northeast Florida asked members to help fund Camp Deep Pond. Martinez said a 64 acre plot of land with a 12 acre lake was donated to them and they want to turn it into a day camp for the Boys and Girls Club. Martinez said they weren’t looking for a recurring investment, they just want a one time infusion to help build a facility on the land.
- Many urged members to stand up for affordable housing in Florida by protecting the Sadowski Trust Fund. The state legislature has been sweeping most of that money into the general fund for close to a decade.
- A handful of women asked members to consider funding services specifically designed to help female veterans.
- Several speakers urged delegation members to consider criminal justice reform.
- A refugee from Haiti and an immigrant from the country of Georgia were the final speakers at Monday’s meeting. They asked members to help fund english language classes and to consider implementing policies aimed at protecting immigrants and refugees.
Perhaps the most memorable speaker of the day was Jennifer Greagor, who was joined at the podium by her son Jack.
“In 2016 my son fell ill of a virus called acute acute flaccid myelitis, which within 48 hours basically paralyzed him and put him on a ventilator,” Greagor said.
“So I was thrust into this world of medically complex children when my son was three,” she said. “Perfectly healthy, vaccinized... just a wonderful little boy. Within two days, paralyzed and on a ventilator. So I have had to learn, within the past two years, how to navigate our system for special needs, medically complex kids. And it needs a lot of help. We need a lot of help.”
Greagor said they got Medicaid during the first year, but it’s been a huge struggle since then. “Unfortunately, we don’t have what’s called a Katie Beckett option here in the state of Florida, which is a pathway to get Medicaid for people like me, who are middle income,” she said.
She told elegation members that her family of four has an income of more than $40,000 a year. “The costs that are put onto a family with a medically complex, special needs child are enormous,” she said.
For example, she needs a nurse to be with her son 24 hours a day, but her insurance doesn’t cover it.
“We really need some type of option for a middle income family to give us a pathway to receive benefits,” she said. “We’re not eligible for SSI, we’re not eligible for these things because we work. We’ve worked all of our lives. And we just need a little help to get through this bump in the road.”
“He is my full time job,” Greagor said of her son. “We’ve got nursing, equipment, medicine, doctors appointments, therapy, everything going on. But this population really needs help.”
“We need help,” she said choking back tears. “We need an option or something to help us get through and make life just a tad bit easier for us.”