This week, the Jacksonville City Council passed a last-minute budget amendment to end the city’s annual financial contribution to be part of the Northeast Florida Regional Council.
Councilman Al Ferraro introduced the proposal.
“I was assigned to that [the Northeast Florida Regional Council] in my first year, and I had a difficult time figuring out what they do for our city, and I never really got an answer,” he told fellow councilmembers. “And as I worked and worked and worked through the last four years, I found there are some things that they do, but as taxpayers we're not getting our money's worth.”
The Northeast Florida Regional Council is one of 10 regional councils created by state mandate. It serves Baker, Clay, Flagler, Nassau, Putnam, St. Johns, and Duval counties along with 26 municipalities.
The NEFRC assists member counties and cities in three main ways: economic development, emergency and disaster preparedness, and planning and policy issues.
The city of Jacksonville has been a member since 2001 and pays a $380,000 annual fee. As the largest county in the region, Duval pays the biggest share of dues, or about 20% of the regional council’s annual operating budget.
Beaches Councilman Rory Diamond, who along with Westside Councilwoman Randy DeFoor was appointed liaison to the regional council in July of this year, was quick to voice his support for pulling Jacksonville out.
“I'm on this Regional Council, and I'm seriously struggling to figure out why we are spending almost $400,000 for it,” he said. “This is just a very advisory body that, in my opinion, isn't doing anything that the city of Jacksonville couldn't do for itself.”
Last night, I supported the w/drawal of Jax participation in the Northeast FL Regional Council. We pay $400,000. FL law changed to make NFRC merely provider of advisory reports. This is the kind of waste that has to go. Change is hard. What else could we do with 400k every year?
— Rory Diamond (@RoryDiamond) September 25, 2019
For other budget amendments considered at the same meeting, affected parties were invited to speak. Because they had no idea the proposal was coming, no one from the Regional Council attended Tuesday's City Council meeting, staffers told WJCT News.
“I really don't have an idea of why it was handled in this manner, and I certainly would have been more than happy to be at the meeting, along with members of my board, to make sure that the value of the Council is clearly translated to the City Council,” NEFRC CEO Beth Payne told WJCT News.
Several City Council members voiced concerns about the surprise vote, even those who supported the idea of pulling the funding.
“As a body we’ve argued at length this evening about committee work and the importance of the committee work. And yet here we are, within 30 minutes of defunding essentially an organization that relies heavily upon the support of this community,” Mandarin Councilman Michael Boylan said. “So I'm reluctant to support [the amendment], although I certainly understand the value of why we should move away from it.”
In the end, council voted 12-to-7 in favor of cutting funding for the NEFRC. However, the bill (2019-712) that would have formally withdrawn Jacksonville from the council, a step that’s required under the interlocal agreement establishing the NEFRC, failed.
The process was so last minute that the resolution had to be drafted during the meeting and wasn’t presented to council members until almost midnight, nearly seven hours after council had convened.
NEFRC CEO Beth Payne said it is now clear that the regional council needs to do a better job of communicating its mission and work, as well as the return on investment for taxpayers.
For one thing, she said the Regional Council helps members with collecting and analyzing data that helps them offer incentives to bring in businesses that create jobs, by working closely with JAXUSA. As a designated economic development district, the NEFRC helps cities and counties get Economic Development Administration funding.
Perhaps the most prominent example of the council’s economic work was helping JAXUSA bring Amazon to Jacksonville.
The regional council also performs hurricane evacuation studies and provides counties information like where storm surge zones are. The NEFRC also helps health care professionals prepare for disasters through its Health Care Coalition.
“We have over 200 healthcare community members in the city of Jacksonville, including every hospital in the city of Jacksonville, that we provide training and exercise opportunities for,” Payne said. “We also provide project funding. I think as we're tallying data and information, over $120,000 has gone to city members over the last few years for projects and disaster preparedness for the healthcare community.”
On the planning and policy front, the NEFRC is best known for its work to help the region build up resiliency in the face of sea level rise caused by climate change.
“We helped to support some of the city committees on resiliency, and in fact, it was recommended by the Adaptation Action Area committee to support the regional effort in resiliency, endorsing the work that we're doing and partnering with us to further that work,” said Payne.
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The Regional Council has also been helping the city’s Environmental Protection Board organize its annual environmental symposium for years, receiving an award of excellence for its Public Private Regional Resiliency committee at this year’s event.
The committee was the NEFRC’s effort to address climate change and sea level rise in Northeast Florida by involving the business community. It began about six years ago.
“That many years ago, talking about ‘resiliency’ wasn't the norm,” she said. “Just the nature of bringing those people together and having those conversations was what really spurred these efforts to get all the cities and local governments recognizing that it was time to act,” she said. “I consider that probably one of the biggest successes of the group.”
The Regional Council works with smaller cities within Duval County.
“We do a great deal of technical assistance work for those municipalities that have small budgets and small staffs,” she explained. “We do a lot of work with the town of Baldwin, we do a lot of work with the Beaches communities, assisting them in a lot of the sea level rise efforts, which are very important to them at this moment.”
As Jacksonville looks poised to pull out of the NEFRC, other areas of the state are moving toward greater regional cooperation to address climate change and sea level rise, like the Southeast Florida Regional Climate Change Compact.
“Best practice kind of shows us you can be more successful in the resilience world by leveraging regional resources,” Payne said. “It all started obviously in Southeast Florida with the climate compact, and is certainly moving in that regional direction across almost every region in Florida. And in most instances, the regional councils are playing key roles in that effort.”
The legislation that would make Jacksonville’s withdrawal formal is now headed to committees before it comes back to the full City Council. That process, which should allow the NEFRC to make its case before councilmembers, is expected to happen over the coming weeks.
In the meantime, the $380,000 that was initially earmarked for the NEFRC has been placed in the city’s contingency fund, meaning it hasn’t been reallocated for any other purpose. Payne said she’s hopeful council members will vote to reallocate those funds to the NEFRC.
To learn more about what the NEFRC and Florida’s other regional councils do, click here.