Council members concerned about pension deal

Some worry about tax increase, wonder where money will come from

The mayor and the police and fire pension fund are trying to solve the $1.7 billion pension deficit.
The mayor and the police and fire pension fund are trying to solve the $1.7 billion pension deficit.

JACKSONVILLE, Fla. – The Jacksonville City Council is getting its first look at a tentative agreement on a pension deal reached by the mayor and the Jacksonville Police and Fire Pension Fund, and many are showing concerns.

They're worried taxes will be raised and are trying to find out where the agreement says the money is coming from.

About a year ago, Mayor Alvin Brown said the city was ready to move ahead on the pension agreement. Last summer, the City Council said it was a bad deal, and now some feel the same way about the current plan.

Councilman Matt Schellenberg has a different take on what happened when the mayor and the head of the Police and Fire Pension Fund reached an agreement. He said the city is losing out on the deal because nowhere is it mentioned where $40 million will come from.

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"I'm kind of disappointed, in fact, quite appalled that he has not done the work that he needed to do," Schellenberg said. "There is a tremendous lack of leadership, and what the citizens want and what's best for the citizens, it's not for the mayor and for his reelection campaign."

Schellenberg's not alone. Other council members have said the same thing. They want some answers about funding. Others are waiting to get a more detailed look at the plan.

Clay Yarborough, who will become council president this summer, was asked if he would support a tax increase to pay for the plan.

"I don't want to discard anything before it's been put on the table for discussion," he said. "It is a collective vote that the City Council will have to make. I'm not going to rule anything out before giving it consideration."

Funding has been a concern of the pension task force, Which recommended the tax hike earlier this year. It could come about in two ways: a property tax hike or a sales tax increase.

To get there, it's somewhat complicated. Property taxes would increase about a mil and half, and that would generate about $68 million a year. Then voters would have a choice during an election whether they prefer a half-cent sales tax or a property tax increase. If sales tax wins out, then the property tax increase would go away.

Bill Scheu, who headed up the task force, said the mayor needs to make a commitment now.

They should put the sales tax referendum on the ballot. The mayor should agree to do that," Scheu said. "He does not have to say he supports the tax, but he should support putting it on the ballot. Let the Voters decide. Politicians do that every day."

"So I think they really need to get a dedicated funding source on this, No. 1," Scheu added. "No. 2, the funds really need to reconsider its oppositions to any (cost-of-living adjustment) change. Without those, I am not sure the community would support this proposal."

Some council members who have held town hall meetings said residents understand this is a significant problem and they would be willing to support a tax increase. More would be in favor of a sales tax than an advolum tax increase.

"We cannot mislead the public that you can run the city the size of Jacksonville on less revenue," Councilwoman Denise Lee said. "So I don't know what the answer is. I can't say I will (support a tax increase), but I certainly can't say I won't."

"My answer is going to be vague. Possibly," Councilwoman Lori Boyer said of supporting a tax increase. "I am not going to say I would never support a tax increase. I need to see it as part of the bigger package. It needs to be a comprehensive package."

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