JACKSONVILLE, Fla. – After six years of struggle, lawsuits and failed efforts to stem the growing deficit in the Jacksonville Police and Fire Pension Fund, the fund's board of trustees voted 4-1 Friday morning to accept the city's latest reform agreement.
Saying the plan will save the city $1.5 billion over the next 30 years, Mayor Alvin Brown immediately signed the bill into law.
As one council member said, he may have lost the election, but this was a big win. It will be up to Mayor-elect Lenny Curry and the next City Council to figure out how to pay an additional $350 million over the next 13 years to pay it.
Last week, the Jacksonville City Council approved a package that would increase employee contributions and raise the retirement age for future hires. Councilman Bill Gulliford, who shepherded the latest reform plan through the City Council, attended the meeting, as did Council President Clay Yarborough.
"It's not retirement benefits, but mismanagement by the city that has led us here," said firefighter Richard Tuten III, who was the only trustee to vote against the plan. "At the end of the day, guys, we are still in the same spot as when we started this process: There is no funding source dedicated to solving this problem."
Retired sheriff and current Edward Waters College President Nat Glover said he felt awful that officers felt they have been betrayed, but felt he had to support this plan.
"We pulled the old bait and switch. In other words, 'Here's what you're going to get when we hire you,' and then later on we have to tell them, 'Sorry about that. You're going to get less,'" Glover said. "If I had just looked at that, there would've been no way that I could've supported this. But when you look at the entire picture, it felt like something I had to do."
Adam Herbert, retired president of the University of North Florida, said he had trouble sleeping after hearing the uniform opposition from police and firefighters at a public hearing Thursday.
"On balance, notwithstanding the comments that we heard yesterday that touched me a great deal, I'm convinced this plan is one that we should support," Herbert said. "I want to be in the process of defining the future rather than letting a judge do it for us."
Police Officer Lawrence Schmitt, also a pension trustee, said he reluctantly supports the plan. Walt Bussells, board of trustees chairman and retired JEA executive director, also expressed reservations about the length of the agreement and cuts to benefits, but voted for the plan.
"There's much about this I don't like personally ... but this can be done," Bussells said. "This reflects constructive engagement. Continuing that, that's where success lies with the city and our members in the future."
"We got an agreement that is signed," Brown said after putting his signature on the agreement. "It's going to save the taxpayers about $1.5 million over the next 30 years. I am very grateful and humbled by making sure we got this done."
It will be up to Curry's incoming administration and the new City Council to come up with $300 million over the next 13 years pay down the deficit.
"This gives us some certainty and some financial stability as it relates to pension," Curry said. "My commitment is to solve the unfunded liability. I will lead the effort with my team and come up with the real solution for the unfunded liability."
It is likely that the agreement between the city and pension fund will be challenged in the courts.
Unions, rank-and-file speak against plan
The five members of the pension fund's board of trustees spent part of Thursday listening as police officers, firefighters and their union leaders spoke out against the plan.
The unions and members told the board to vote down the plan, saying it will do nothing but hurt them, because current officers and firefighters and new hires will have to pay more into the pension program.
The city called it "shared sacrifice."
Officer Michael Taylor, who has been with the Jacksonville Sheriff's Office for 17 years, was shot on the job. He said to get less than what was promised is unfair.
"We hear all of this about shared sacrifice," Taylor said. "I've shared. I've given enough. In 2001, while protecting the city, I was shot twice while protecting the city. I almost lost my life. I gave up a lot. In the end, I ended up losing my family over this whole thing, so if you can sit in a meeting and say 'shared sacrifice,' ask how many people have been shot on their job there and have lost their family, and I think you could say very few."
Others said the city-approved pension deal would make it difficult to recruit new officers and that it's a slap in the face to current officers.
"Morale is at an all-time low," Officer R.T. Weeks said. "There's not a lot of trust right now. There's not a lot of good faith, but we still continue to do our job."
"I've got to look at the reality of the situation and make the best decision based on what I think is best for our pension members in the city," Glover said Thursday. "I am not ready to say anything more than that."
Council approves pension deal
The latest pension plan was passed June 9 in the waning days of the current city administration and the terms of 11 of Jacksonville's 19 City Council members. It will be up to the next administration to find millions of additional dollars that the plan requires.
A task force last year recommended a property tax hike or a sales tax increase to fund the plan, but neither of those ideas has any traction, and Lenny Curry repeatedly promised during his mayoral campaign he would oppose any new taxes. Other ideas include using money from the JEA or issuing bonds.
Some City Council members said that while the approved plan passed council 14-4, the agreement could be struck down in the courts. While Circuit Judge Thomas Beverly refused a request to block the vote with an injunction, he previously ruled that the current pension contract was illegal because of the way it was negotiated with the Pension Board, not in collective bargaining with the police and fire unions.
"I don't think this is the end of it," said Councilman John Crescimbeni, who cast one of the dissenting votes. "I think it's very likely we will end up in court on this issue. We didn't collectively bargain, so I think the case can be made for that."
John Winkler, of Concerned Taxpayers of Duval County, the group that brought the lawsuit challenging the agreement, said it's very likely that the judge will make some type of ruling. But which whom the deal was negotiated isn't the only problem with the deal.
"I have a second reason for not liking this legislation, which has absolutely nothing to do with whether it was legal or not, and that's the commitment to add another $32 million a year beginning three years from now for another decade," Winkler said.