JACKSONVILLE, Fla. – After six years of debate and two mayors saying it is the city's biggest financial problem, the latest plan to reform the Jacksonville Police and Fire Pension Fund has passed in a 14 - 4 vote.
The plan still has to go before the police and fire pension board on June 19 but City Councilman Bill Gulliford said he was extremely happy with the vote and made assurance that the city will find the money to make the plan work.
Those who voted in favor of the reform bill included, Clay Yarborough, Richard Clark, Don Redman, Reggie Gaffney, E. Denise Lee, Warren A. Jones, Reginald L. Brown, Ray Holt, Doyle Carter, Bill Gulliford, Jim Love, Stephen C. Joost, Greg Anderson and Robin Lumb.
Those who voted against it included, John R. Crescimbeni, William Bishop, Lori N. Boyer and Matt Schellenberg.
If they do approve it, it will rank as an incredibly important financial achievement for the city, though some people are still skeptical.
Schellenberg said until the next administration gets together to collectively bargain all assets of employment for the police and fire department, the city hasn't really solved its problem tonight.
"Getting engaged with the whole process means you're dealing with health, retired health, that could substantially help them in the future. All those things should be put on the table to be discussed. And what we're doing is we're picking and choosing what we want to do," Schellenberg said.
But Gulliford disagrees. He said the bill was necessary for police and firefighters and tax payers who he said have paid $213 million over the last four years because the City Council hasn't been able to come to an agreement.
Outgoing mayor Alvin Brown was overjoyed with the vote and in a statement said, "Tonight's vote is a great result for taxpayers and our hardworking first responders. I have made pension reform a priority since Day 1, and we look forward to working with the Police and Fire Pension Fund to enact these much-needed reforms. I want to especially thank Council member Bill Gulliford for his leadership and working with me on a solution that will make our city a better place."
City Councilman Warren Jones spoke out about the vote and said that pension reform wasn't just about money, but about being able to keep good men and women staffing the police and fire departments.
"I think we're forgetting about the morale. We have a terrible situation with morale, in the police and fire, and throughout government. They haven't had any raises in six years now. Some of us who have been on the council with Mayor Peyton have been dealing with this issue for a lot longer than those who have been here for the past four years. It's very frustrating. Morale is bad and it's not getting any better. We're losing a lot of good, hard-working city employees because of our inaction. I voted against repealing," Jones said.
The plan, proposed by Gulliford, increases the amount current and future police officers and firefighters would play toward their retirement and raised the years of service needed to before retiring for new employees only. It also has the pension fund paying more into a pot to bring down the deficit to ensure the future of the plan.
But the seven-year agreement would also change the way the plan is structured and would increase the city's annual contribution in order to begin reducing the $1.7 billion deficit. The city initially would contribute and additional $5 million, which increases to $32 million a year for the next 10 years.
"I am hopeful because I know the consequences if we don't get this passed. I think the consequences will be severe.," Gulliford said. "We have been doing this for six years. We have talked. We debated. We sued. We fought and we gotten nowhere. And the cost of it continues to rise every single day."
Though the pension plan did pass, the next administration and the City Council will have to find a source of revenue to fund the additional contributions.
"If they commit to make a payment, they need to make a payment," said John Keane, executive director of the pension fund.
Last Friday, a judge turned down a request to block a city council vote on the latest plan to reform the city's pension fund. Concerned Tax Payers of Duval County contended the pension agreement was negotiated illegally, but a judge didn't agree.
John Winkler, of Concerned Taxpayers, says the city can't afford the plan.
"We don't have any source to come up with the $32 million payment," Winkler said. "But we are tying ourselves into that if this bill passes, and the outgoing City Council are not going to be the ones to try and come up with the money."
"If we could collect a little over $300,000 from every man woman and child in Jacksonville, we could solve the problem, but that's not possible, so we've got to come up with a solution. But we've got to stop the clock on the money going out, the cost of everything," added Gulliford.
Incoming president Greg Anderson will take the reins of council a the end of June and Lenny Curry will replace Alvin Brown as mayor.
When asked if the transition makes him nervous, he said, "It's not so much nervous, it's respecting the people coming in. All of us have had at least four year's experience with this issue -- discussion, debate, information, all that goes along with it -- in consideration of a significant issue."
Mayor-elect Lenny Curry was not available to comment on the pending vote.