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More money, longer terms sought by City Council

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JACKSONVILLE, Fla. – A new push is making its way through Jacksonville's City Council that would give council members a 2 percent pay raise and extend term limits by another four years in office. 

The push for that pay raise comes at a time when the mayor and a new city audit said the city is in a financial crisis. 

Soon, police and firefighters will be getting a boost in pay, to make up for pay cuts they took in 2012, and now the City Council wants their share, too.

One of the things the City Council did while creating their budget for 2016 was setting aside money so police, firefighters and city employees who took pay cuts several years ago can get that money restored.

And now City Council members said that in fairness, their cuts should be restored as well.

In 2010, council members voted to reduce their pay by 2 percent, meaning each council member would make about $44,000 a year.

City Councilman Matt Schellenberg has now introduced legislation to try to return their pay to what it was before the cuts, meaning each city council member would make an additional $900 a year, with the council president making slightly more.

Schellenberg said it's only fair, because legislation passed in the latest budget will allow for city employees who took that cut as well will eventually get their pay grade restored to the original level.

"All I am saying is in this budget, going forward, there is $700,000 in there to put everybody back up to where they were seven or eight years ago. That's where the 2 percent comes from --  that is already in the budget," Schellenberg said.

There is also about $2 million set aside for police and firefighter pay as well, but how that gets distributed will have to be negotiated during contract talks.

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The pay raises for the council would take effect before those contract talks, meaning the council would get their pay raises back before police and firefighters and Steve Amos, head of the Fraternal Order of Police in Jacksonville, said he thinks it's only fair that those first responders get their money back when every other city employee does.

"Well I think everybody that had pay cuts should get their pay back with the city. I think that was implied when everybody made the cuts. When times got better, they would get it back," Amos said. "Do I think we are better than anybody else, of course not, but we are the guys that go out there and risk our lives. We take care of the people rain or shine, no matter what happens."

But Schellenberg thinks that police and firefighter pay hasn't been affected in the same way that other city employees' pay has.

"There are very few policemen or firemen that are not above the 2 or 3 percent that they actually took because of step raises and things like that. So I understand their position going forward but in reality there are very few police and firemen making less now than they were seven or eight years ago," Schellenberg said.

Aside from pay raises, some council members are also trying to remove the current term limits that were put in place by voters, allowing themselves an additional four years in office.

Right now council members are limited to serve eight years, which is two terms, but the change would add an additional four-year term.

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Experience is what Schellenberg said he wants the voters to look at and decide if term limits for City Council members need to be changed. He said being a council member is only a part-time job and right when those members are hitting their stride in terms of experience and ability, they're forced to hit the door.

"It gives elected officials, really, time to understand what's going on. The first three years or so you're just learning what you can do or what you cannot do and by the time you get re-elected, you really got the momentum of what you want to do, what you're seeing. Your world of meeting people is more knowledgeable, and then basically you term out," Schellenberg said.

Schellenberg also said that he is just following the recommendation of a committee that looked into how the government in Jacksonville is working.

Term limits were popular in the '90s and early 2000s and are still in place, with a court ruling in 2012 upholding the term limits for the office of sheriff and other constitutional offices in Jacksonville. But Schellenberg said that public opinion has changed and it's time to change term limits as well.

The measure to change those limits calls for a voter referendum during the presidential primary in March, but the idea of changing those limits is not sitting well with everyone.

Community activist John Winkler said if they were to make any changes, it should be the other way around. He said that right now, all it seems council members are doing is campaigning.

"I am personally, totally, utterly opposed to it. If anything, I think we should come up with a charter amendment that changes terms to one six-year term," Winkler said.

Rick Mullaney is the head of the Public Policy institute at Jacksonville University and has been involved in local government for 20 years. He said that one way or another, it is time to take another look at the limits.

"I think the notion of term limits sounds really good, but it's sort of, 'Throw the bums out because anything else would be better than what we have.' The reality is something different. There are some good people who come to City Council," Mullaney said. "It may be a part-time job but it takes a lot of time and effort to be effective on City Council. They should really be leaving later in their terms as opposed to trying to leave early, before they have the knowledge, before they have the expertise."

The measure is only for City Council and not the mayor and others. Both pay raises and term limits will be brought up at the next City Council meeting on Tuesday.
 


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