Councilman Al Ferraro has asked the Northeast Florida Regional Council to illustrate what it does for Jacksonville ahead of committee hearings where elected officials will consider whether the city should continue funding the organization.
Councilman Ferraro, who represents Jacksonville’s District 2, last week introduced a floor amendment to the city budget to cut the city’s annual contribution of about $390,000 to the Northeast Florida Regional Council (NEFRC), one of ten Regional Councils across the state that helps seven counties and 26 cities on the First Coast with everything from economic development to resilience against rising seas.
Ferraro’s amendment passed 12-7, but the bill that would have formally withdrawn Jacksonville from the Regional Council, a step that’s required under the inter local agreement establishing the NEFRC, failed.
That legislation is now making its way through committees before it goes back to the full City Council. Meanwhile, a bill that would reinstate Jacksonville’s annual contribution to the NEFRC, filed by Group 2 At-Large Councilman Ron Salem, is going through the same process.
All of the council members who voted for Ferraro’s budget amendment said at the time of the vote that they weren’t sure what the NEFRC does. Since then, NEFRC CEO Beth Payne has been speaking at committee meetings and meeting with council members one-on-one to try and better communicate the organization’s functions.
While they now understand and appreciate what the NEFRC does for surrounding counties and smaller communities, Ferraro and District 11 Councilman Danny Becton said they still aren’t convinced the organization is valuable to Jacksonville.
“Duval County... they don’t really have a seat at the table,” Becton said at a public meeting Friday afternoon. “I just think the Florida Regional Council maybe has taken things for granted for way too long and this conversation is well overdue.”
“While it’s serving a lot of needs for a lot of the smaller communities, and we being a leader want to support those initiatives... we also want to make sure that we’re relevant. That we’re not just Mr. Moneybag,” he went on to say.
To help illustrate his concerns, Ferraro asked several city officials to discuss their relationship with the NEFRC, including Bill Killingsworth, Director of Planning and Development.
“I think coordinating and planning at a scale larger than the county has value. I think it’s difficult to calculate an ROI [return on investment] on that because it’s a philosophy as opposed to a dollar on dollar kind of thing,” Killingsworth said. “We tend to have a lot of resources, so my suspicion is that they use their planning staff and dollars on smaller communities that don't have the technical capability or the resources to do that.”
Florida used to require the Regional Council to review Jacksonville’s comprehensive plan, a state mandated plan to guide future development and growth, Killingsworth explained. That’s no longer the case, but the organization is still required to check the city’s comprehensive plan for consistency with the strategic regional policy plan.
“So… if the Regional Council went away, the effect on planning would be something that really couldn’t be noticed?” Ferraro asked.
“They still have the statutory requirement to review for consistency the regional plan, so there would be a gap there,” Killingsworth replied. “When we did the Adaptation Action Area, they had a report on sea level rise and it was local and relatively recent, so we used that. But on a day to day operational level, would it impact the department? Probably not.”
“My personal opinion is that regional planning will cease to exist without Jacksonville,” warned Fernandina Beach Vice Mayor Len Kreger, who serves as the president of the NEFRC board of directors. “And I think that would be a serious problem.”
Baldwin Mayor Sean Lynch credited the NEFRC with saving his town about $300,000. Baldwin is in Duval County, but like the Beaches, has maintained its own government since consolidation.
“I look at every penny I spend because my budget is tight. I’ve got $2 million a year, so I look at every project,” he said. “I don’t think it shows a good impression of Jacksonville and Duval County by leaving.”
Lynch said he sees this situation as a great opportunity for Duval County to improve its relationship with the NEFRC and demand a solid return on it’s yearly investment.
“I agree,” replied Ferraro. “I'm really searching to see what the Northeast Florida Regional Council can do so I can go in front of my constituents and say, ‘This is the value that we're getting and this is why I'm supporting it.’”
That’s why he asked the Regional Council to prepare presentations for future committee meetings on what the organization is doing for Jacksonville outside of efforts the city is already engaged in.
“Show us that value that we’re getting,” he said. “Something that you guys brought to us that we didn’t see. That would be a really important thing to see.”