Jacksonville City Councilman Looks To Force Debate Over NE FL Regional Council Funding

Sep 30, 2019

Jacksonville At-Large Group 2 City Councilman Ron Salem says legislation restoring funding to the Northeast Florida Regional Council he plans to file this week would give the organization a chance to make its case and force councilmembers to debate the pros and cons of membership.

That comes after the City Council passed a last-minute floor amendment to the city budget last week ending Jacksonville’s annual membership dues - a process Salem and several of his colleagues were extremely uncomfortable with.

“I would have liked to have seen the defunding process occur through the regular process: go through committees where the Northeast Florida group could come and present what they do, why it's of value to Duval County, and we could ask questions,” said Salem. “There was no one there from the Northeast Regional Council to really defend themselves, so to speak, on why that funding is important.”

Related: NE Fla. Regional Council Stunned By Surprise Jax City Council Vote To Stop Payments

The Northeast Florida Regional Council (NEFRC) is one of ten regional councils in the state. It serves Baker, Clay, Flagler, Nassau, Putnam, St. Johns and Duval counties along with 26 municipalities. The organization is perhaps best known for helping JAXUSA and the city bring Amazon to Jacksonville and for its ongoing efforts to improve the region’s resilience to climate change, specifically sea level rise.

Jacksonville has been a NEFRC member since 2001 and pays $390,673 in annual membership fees. But that could change if the City Council ends up supporting measure 2019-712 to formally withdraw from the organization.

In the meantime, the funds originally earmarked for the NEFRC have not yet been reallocated for any other purpose. The money has been placed in a contingency fund.

But draft legislation Salem shared with WJCT this week would change that. His at-large district includes Arlington and the Beaches.

Salem’s bill would move that $390,673 from contingency back to the NEFRC. The proposal also requests a one cycle emergency, which would speed the committee process up and get the legislation before the full City Council in about three weeks.

“This $400,000 is a significant portion of their budget. They are located in Duval County, have offices here, and this would have a significant impact on their operations,” Salem said. “I just feel like under those circumstances, they ought to be given the opportunity to justify their existence.”

The NEFRC was not given that opportunity when District 2 Councilman Al Ferraro, who represents the eastern half of Jacksonville’s Northside as well as Fort Caroline and the surrounding areas, introduced his floor amendment during last week’s City Council meeting.

“It surprised me, as I think it did some of my colleagues, because we had no debate on it prior to his introduction,” Salem said. “There were [other] amendments that were filed ahead of time, which we debated, but this one was not filed ahead of time.”

Despite his complaints about the process, Salem said he’s not ignoring the views of his colleagues.

“Some of the people that voted for removing this funding were people that have served on the council. And that was disturbing to me, because they didn't feel like the appropriation was useful to Duval County,” he said.

But Salem said he’s not comfortable making a decision before he hears from the NEFRC and its supporters. 

The legislation he plans to file this week will give the NEFRC a chance to defend itself and would force councilmembers to debate the merits of Jacksonville’s membership.

Until he hears all relevant perspectives, Salem said he doesn’t know which side of the debate he’ll come down on.

Brendan Rivers can be reached at brivers@wjct.org, 904-358-6396 or on Twitter at @BrendanRivers.