Last night I attended a budget workshop run by the Jacksonville Community Council (www.jcci.org). We were given a list of budget items and their cost, and asked to rank them after visiting various agency heads at different tables. (There will be more workshops, see http://www3.coj.net/my-jax-budget.aspx for dates and places).
The most interesting part was a speech by Mayor John Peyton. He said that, despite public focus on tax increases and wasteful spending, that Jacksonville actually taxes and spends much less per capita than other Florida cities. Our millage rates are lower than those of other Florida big cities, and our spending per capita is lower in a variety of areas.* (He didn't explain whether this was because the city provides less than its Florida peers, or whether city-county consolidation has given the city a bigger tax base, thus enabling it to be more efficient).
He also explained why the city is nevertheless in fiscal trouble. Two-thirds of city spending goes to (1) public safety and (2) obligations such as complying with various contracts and paying pensions. In particular, pension costs have soared from $24 milion in 2000 to $263m today- an increase more than twice the city's $60 million budget hole. Pensions have become more expensive partially because of bad political decisions (increasing pensions to gain union support) but also because the city planned to fund the pensions through investments that have not been tremendously successful.
*Statistics available at http://www3.coj.net/My-Jax-Budget/How-We-Compare/Millage-Rate.aspx
and other links on the same website.