JAX Chamber's annual request for city support is drawing unusual scrutiny this year about whether taxpayer money will help fund the salaries of chamber employees while the organization's top-paid executive, Daniel Davis, is running for mayor.
The city has supported the chamber of commerce in 19 of the past 22 years — taking a break only during the Great Recession years — but the $750,000 in the proposed 2022-23 budget would be the highest payment to date, up from $500,000 this year.
Davis, who filed Sept. 1 to run for mayor in 2023, said mayoral politics are fueling the attention this year on the city's support for the chamber. He said no taxpayer money goes toward salaries of any chamber employees.
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"That's ridiculous," he said of the accusation. "It's a failed attempt by some of my opponents to say the good work of the chamber — the jobs we've created at the chamber, the workforce development we've created at the chamber — is no good."
He said if people have questions about the city's support for the chamber, "Why did they vote for it every year before I got in the race?"
Two City Council members, both Republicans like Davis, are candidates for mayor.
City Council member Al Ferraro actually voted against the city money for the chamber last year.
Council member LeAnna Cumber, who supported chamber-related spending in the past, said City Council needs a clear justification for how the chamber will use taxpayer money.
Four of the city's independent authorities — JEA, the Jacksonville Aviation Authority, JaxPort and the Jacksonville Transportation Authority — are set to to pay a total of $429,000 in their 2022-23 budgets to support the chamber, an amount that would be on top of the $750,000 from the city.
"We all know money is fungible," Cumber said, "so we need to make sure that if taxpayers are spending over a million dollars, people know exactly what the money is for and that it's needed."
Former City Council member Garrett Dennis, a Democrat who endorsed Donna Deegan for mayor, also weighed in before he stepped down from council. He wrote a letter in August in to the City Council Auditor's office that said the city needs evidence that money paid to the chamber is being spent effectively.
Duval County Democratic Party Chairman Daniel Henry said "the question is still there as to whether or not taxpayers are essentially subsidizing Daniel Davis, who's running for mayor."
"I think that's something that regardless of party affiliation is deeply concerning," Henry said.
The most recent annual Form 990 that's available on the Internal Revenue Service website shows that in 2019, the chamber spent a total of $8.87 million. Executive compensation and salaries for other employees accounted for $4.24 million, or nearly half the expenditures.
Davis, who has been CEO of the chamber since 2013, was compensated $461,458 in 2019, according to the Form 990 for the Jacksonville Regional Chamber of Commerce.
Chamber executive Aundra Wallace told the council's Finance Committee the structure of the chamber's organization ensures taxpayer dollars don't go toward salaries.
"No public sector money that we receive can be used for salaries — none whatsoever," Wallace said.
Wallace, who is president of JAXUSA Partnership, the regional economic development arm of the chamber, said the partnership has a $3.4 million budget. He said he raises money from private businesses for the regional partnership and those contributions pay for its salaries.
Wallace said the money from the city and its independent authorities has gone toward marketing Jacksonville for business recruitment, an activity that's covered by a longstanding agreement between the city and the chamber for the annual contributions.
For the proposed 2022-23 budget, the city's support for such marketing would rise to $625,000. Wallace said that will allow the city to remain competitive with others in the Southeast that battle Jacksonville to attract business investment and jobs.
The remaining $125,000 would go toward workforce development. Wallace said when businesses consider Jacksonville, the first question they ask is whether residents have the skills the businesses need.
He said the Jacksonville area's overall unemployment rate is at about 2.2% to 2.3%, but some parts of Jacksonville have a much higher unemployment rate. The money for workforce development will help the chamber do a "deeper reach" into those neighborhoods to connect young people to the education and training they need to fill the jobs that businesses need, Wallace said.
According to JAXUSA Partnership, Jacksonville's public investment in economic development is the lowest among its "competitor cities" in Florida.
The partnership's data shows the cities of Tampa and Orlando each put up $1.7 million, Ft. Lauderdale is at $1.6 million and Miami-Dade is $3.86 million. The funding from Miami-Dade comes from a voter-approved tax on business licenses that funds economic development, according to the chamber.
City Council President Terrance Freeman, who once worked as a staff member at the chamber, said that because of how JAXUSA Partnership is "compartmentalized" from the rest of the chamber, council members should have the "upmost confidence" in how taxpayer money is spent.
City Council will vote on the proposed $750,000 when it approves a city budget during its council meeting scheduled to start a 5 p.m. Tuesday at City Hall.
Times-Union staff writer Hanna Holthaus contributed to this report.
This article originally appeared on Florida Times-Union: City of Jacksonville considers $750,000 for chamber of commerce