JACKSONVILLE, Fla. – All 19 members of the Jacksonville City Council voted Tuesday night to put a referendum on the August ballot, asking voters to approve a half-cent sales tax to pay off the city's multibillion-dollar pension deficit.
If passed by Duval County's voters, the sales tax currently funding the Better Jacksonville Plan -- the new Duval County Courthouse, downtown library, arena, Baseball Grounds, City Hall and other capital building projects -- would be replaced in 2030 with a tax dedicated to paying off more than $2 billion in pensions for retired police, firefighters and other city employees.
The city's referendum will be co-sponsored by every member of the council.
"With regards to the question of why in August -- the answer is simple. The city’s facing a crisis with its pension. And the sooner we get on with this, the better for all concerned," Chief Administrative Officer Sam Mousa said.
Mayor Lenny Curry proposed the sales-tax replacement, which he calls an extension, and got the Florida Legislature to pass and Gov. Rick Scott to sign a bill to allow it. Now he must sell voters on the plan, which he contends will free up millions of dollars the city is currently paying each year to meet its pension obligations to fund public safety, libraries and other city services.
"We are asking the voters to extend that so that can be used to pay down our pension liabilities," Curry said. "We are closing the three plans that caused this so this never happens again."
Not everyone is saying this the solution. The unions involved have to agree to close their pension plans to new employees. There are also questions about a tax that begin collecting funds in 16 years could free up money in budgets in the near future.
Curry said there are ideas floating around that will answer these issues, but nothing has been set.
"The whole process has been difficult up to this point, but we've been successful," Curry said. "But I think we been successful because the people are looking for solutions. And people in Jacksonville or looking for the truth, and we're going to tell them how we're going to solve this so their kids and their grandkids don't have to worry about this."
Pastor James Sampson led a group from the city's Northside that told the City Council in public comments that they don't trust the mayor's proposal, they don't trust the council and they want to know city services will be provided across all of Duval County, if people vote to solve the pension problem.
"Since consolidation, we feel as though we've been in a situation of taxation without representation," Sampson said. "The Northside has been neglected for such a long time. We're simply saying to the mayor, 'We know you have to deal with the pension, but there are some other people who need basic needs and necessities who've been neglected for a long time."
But Concern Taxpayers of Duval County will encourage people to vote no precisely because it believes this is a tax on the voter's grandchildren.
"If taxpayers have any common sense, they will realize that this isn't really a solution. All this is managing to do is kick the can down the road," said John Winkler, president of Concerned Taxpayers.
Now that the tax referendum is on the ballot, Curry and other supporters of the plan will begin their campaign. The opposition is getting ready, as well.
"It places the measure on the August ballot, allowing the hard work to begin as the Mayor takes his case for approval to the voters.. Much has been accomplished so far, but much remains," City Council President Greg Anderson said.
A poll conducted by the University of North Florida Public Opinion Research Lab found that 40 percent of likely voters are not even aware of the issue. The majority of the other 60 percent who had followed the city's pension problem did support the sales tax.
Curry said he was encouraged by those results, knowing that while he must sell the tax, people are willing to listen.
"I’ve heard my colleagues talk about, 'The mayor’s got to get out there and sell this.' No, we’ve got to get out there and sell this," City Councilman Tommy Hazouri said.