Several Jax Council Members Criticize Proposed Social Justice Pilot Program Spending

Nov 30, 2020

The first bill to come out of the Jacksonville City Council’s Social Justice and Community Investment Committee was heard by a committee Monday morning.

Although the committee ultimately decided to move the bill forward, several council members voiced concern about the money allocated to the social justice committee, as well as the power of the committee in its entirety.

Bill 2020-0733 would launch a $400,000 pilot program between the Jacksonville Sheriff’s Office and Sulzbacher Center called MHOP (Mental Health Offender Program), which would be similar to a program run in Miami-Dade County. Half of the money would come from the Social Justice Committee’s $2.8 million fund, while the other would come from JSO.

MHOP would serve as a misdemeanor pre-trial diversion program, helping people who would otherwise serve time in the Duval County jail. They would instead receive benefits like mental health services, help with housing, and opportunities for job training.

“In essence, [it] will provide all of the wraparound mental health services that the person actually needs, and will get that person stabilized, back on their feet and into the economy,” said Cindy Funkhouser, the CEO of Sulzbacher.

Councilman Ron Salem is the bill’s main sponsor, and said the legislation has support from the state attorney’s office, local judges, and JSO.

“With a similar type program, they’ve actually closed down jails, they’ve been able to close down jails in Miami,” Funkhouser told the committee.

Salem said the bill was being passed through as an emergency because he wanted to give Sulzbacher enough time to hire staff to run the program, and to give it six to seven months to gather data so the permanence of the program could be discussed during next year’s budget hearings.

He suspects it will be successful in saving the city money overall.

“There are cost savings here,” Salem said. “It costs us about $75 to $100 a day to keep one of these people in the jail where they're sitting today. If we can divert them out of the jail into treatment, it's much less expensive.”

Salem said if the program shows promise, other organizations could take the cost off of the city’s hands.

The cost of the program, and the overall amount of money being utilized by the Social Justice Committee, was an issue with multiple members of the City Council.

A large chunk of the funds - roughly $2 million - came from Councilman Reggie Gaffney’s Community Redevelopment Area (CRA), which he told the Social Justice Committee wouldn’t be used otherwise. 

There are five CRAs in Jacksonville, with Gaffney serving as a chair of the Jacksonville International Airport CRA.

Councilman Danny Becton said the money from the CRA was supposed to be specifically to grow infrastructure and the job market in certain districts.

“I've heard this conversation on many occasions,” Becton said. “And it’s just like this is just a Christmas gift from Santa Claus. And these are real tax dollars.”

Becton said the fact that the JIA CRA has an overflow of money may show that it’s no longer needed and the extra money should go back to the city.

Councilman Aaron Bowman concurred, saying the CRA money was intended to be a “spark that would generate people to want to be in that area and to grow it out.”

“That's not what happened,” Bowman said. “What happened is we've taken this $2.8 million and we split it in so many pieces, it's really not going to accomplish much of anything and it doesn't have follow-on money.”

The Social Justice Committee has seven members, with each of them coming up with a program to address economic and social equity in Jacksonville. The idea from previous committee meetings is that they can take a portion of the funds the committee has, which has led to multiple smaller bills being worked on by the committee members that will be brought forth in later weeks.

Bowman agreed that the program is a good idea, but said he feels the non-Social Justice committee members are handicapped because they don’t have the ability to chime in on the ideas proposed until the legislation has gone through the committee.

“It seems like we're kind of being held hostage by a little bit of abuse of power here,” Bowman said.

Councilman Rory Diamond said he shares Bowman’s sentiment for the Social Justice Committee.

“What I think is kind of a very troubling committee, the Social Justice Committee, which has never been done before, and I just don't feel it was appropriate to do to begin with,” Diamond said. “I certainly share its goals, but I don't appreciate its structure.”

Diamond said he would like to see the council become more frugal and look at ways to save, rather than spend.

“Here we are just kind of spending short term cash as though it doesn't matter,” Diamond said. “I think we need to save as much short term cash as we can so that we can survive what is going to be a tough year next year and probably the year after that.”

Despite the criticisms of the committee, all three councilmen voted in favor of moving the bill forward, noting that mental health services are an important issue the city wants to tackle. 

The bill will be heard by a few more City Council committees, and the Social Justice Committee during its final meeting of 2020 next Monday, before being voted on by the full council.

Sky Lebron can be reached at slebron@wjct.org, 904-358-6319 or on Twitter at @SkylerLebron.