Mayor's JEA-pension idea not flying well

Customers, board chairman worry plan would raise rates

JACKSONVILLE, Fla. – Mayor Alvin Brown's plan to use JEA money to help dig the city out of its $1 billion pension mess isn't flying well with customers, City Council members and the JEA board.

The mayor's plan calls for JEA contributing an extra $40 million a year that would go to bring the city's pension deficit in line.

Brown and his staff say doing so would not force JEA to raise its rates, but that's not what the chairman of the JEA board said.

"It's outrageous," one JEA customer said.

Many others agreed, believing the mayor's idea could lead to a rate increase.

But not everyone thinks it's bad. JEA customer Kevin Burton said he can see where the mayor is coming from.

"You just can't go to one entity and say let's do this and put it over here," Burton said. "Maybe you have to make a lot of cuts across the board."

When the mayor presented his plan to the retirement task force, it included many options, including having officers and firefighters pay more into the pension fund. But the JEA idea is gaining most of the attention because some say it would hit Jacksonville residents with higher electric bills.

"First of all, I don't think it would mean a rate increase," Brown said.

Mike Hightower, the chairman of the JEA board, says differently.

"I don't see how you can have the JEA contribute $40 million to the additional $200 million that we now give the city without it having a negative impact on the JEA customer," Hightower said.

Bill Gulliford, president of the Jacksonville City Council, said the mayor's plan is way off base.

"If I am a responsible member of the board and I got $40 million sitting around, I am going to spend that on lower rates, reducing debt and improving the utility," Gulliford said. "I think it is just bogus in the sense that this is not an option. I am not going to speak for the JEA, maybe they can pull the rabbit out of the hat and fix it, but I don't see it as an option."

Council member Greg Anderson, who sits on the retirement task force, said there is still a lot to digest with the idea.

"I know JEA is very concerned about how it will impact their customers and I am very concerned about our customers, the people that are paying the bills," Anderson said. "We have to figure out how that will work."

Hightower said he has not talked to the mayor about the plan but the mayor did try calling him Wednesday. They were playing phone tag because the mayor is out of town at a conference.

"Council President Gulliford previously endorsed the Jacksonville retirement reform task force," said Chris Hand, the mayor's chief of staff. "We have 16 citizen leaders working very hard devoting time and energy to address this serious financial issue for the city. We think they deserve the chance to do this job and review this proposal. Now is not the time for anyone to undermine the work of those task force members."

Brown did speak to the CEO of JEA. They've only had a few meetings, and JEA staff says it's willing to listen to any proposal, but nothing has been decided nor is even being negotiated.

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