JACKSONVILLE, Fla. - Both sides in a dispute over a $1.7 billion deficit in the city's pension fund for retired police and firefighters began a new round of negotiations.
This time, the negotiations follow a high-profile committee recommendation that recommended raising taxes to fund the pensions, the appointment of a former prosecutor as moderator and the session are taking place in public.
Mayor Alvin Brown and the Police and Fire Pension Fund negotiated an agreement last year in private, but it was invalidated by a judge for violating Florida's Sunshine Law and later rejected by City Council.
On Friday, all sides met again, and preliminary talks were good-natured and hopeful, but that tone may not last long.
John Keane, who oversees the Police and Fire Pension Fund, says they are not going to do any collective bargaining for the union during these negotiations, but he does says there will likely be some changes made to pension plans new police and firefighters.
"Times have changed and people are living longer -- that is understandable. For current members under a benefit structure, we are not interested in changing that," Keane said.
That could involve more being paid by individual employees into the fund, but all of that is what this panel hopes to work out.
"My hope is that we would have an agreement that we could work towards finishing up and finally get this done," said Mayor Alvin Brown, who has said that pension reform is one of single biggest issues facing the city.
The other change giving both sides optimism a settlement can be reaches is that former Eighth Judicial Circuit State Attorney Rod Smith will be facilitating the negotiations.
"(I'm) trying to help them work through the problems, some we have tried to work through in the past," Smith said. "I am very optimistic."
If they reach an agreement, City Council must sign off on it and agree to fund it. Proposals from a city Retirement Reform Task Force calling for an additional $68 million per year from an increase in property taxes will be part of council's budget debate this summer. The task force recommended that voters be asked to exchange the property tax for a half-cent sales tax increase in a referendum on the November ballot.
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