When Jacksonville consolidated with Duval County in 1968, the city went from covering 37 square miles of land to over 800 square miles – an increase of over 2,000%.
The city’s size came to be a local point of pride – or, at least, marketing – with flyers and brochures over the years noting how Jax is the largest city in the contiguous United States. (There are multiple cities, all in Alaska, that are larger in size.)
But is Jacksonville’s enormous size actually doing it more harm than good?
To be clear, consolidation was necessary. Pre-consolidation Jacksonville was, in many respects, falling apart; city officials were being indicted en masse for corruption, its tax base was decreasing each year as wealthier residents fled to suburbs outside city limits, and basic maintenance tasks were not being performed.
Consolidation allowed for a “hard reset” of the city’s government and a larger tax base that, in theory, would be able to cover projects throughout the city rather than in a few select neighborhoods.
But while it did solve many acute problems within the city, consolidation didn’t address long-term issues as well as anticipated.
Communities with lower per-capita incomes – and thus lower contributions to the city’s tax base – are still far too often ignored or underfunded in favor of wealthier ones. The city’s sheer size makes it difficult to keep up with crumbling infrastructure, and funding for such projects is often prioritized in wealthier parts of town.
Black residents, who were promised major improvements to their quality of life, have yet to see the majority of those supposed perks. Instead, many of their neighborhoods are still plagued by poor infrastructure and violence that remains largely unchecked by the city’s police.
Corruption is still an ever-present factor, from another round of mass indictments in the 1980s to the recent controversy over JEA’s shady attempt at privatization.
And though Jax’s population continues to grow, some in higher tax brackets are beginning to flee yet again – this time to the endless barrage of insular, master-planned communities in St. Johns County.
So, if the problem is our size, what is the solution?
Right now, the city has fourteen council districts to cover its entire footprint, with five at-large districts that aim to provide a second layer of coverage. Though this sounds reasonable in theory, in practice it leads to council representatives having to cover too large of an area to be able to reasonably represent the entirety of their district.
A shake-up to the structure of city council that would allow for better representation of individual communities could help, but without a major catalyst, it’s a move that local politicians would likely be slow to embrace.
In some ways, it feels like Jacksonville is approaching another moment of reckoning like the one it faced in the ‘60s. This time, however, it may be less about expanding its government and more about finding ways to divide the city into more manageable communities with goals and leadership that better reflect their individual needs.