Study: Half-cent sales tax not enough to fix pension problem

Draft report recommends property tax hike, pay increases, 400 more officers

JACKSONVILLE, Fla. – A task force appointed to study how the Jacksonville Sheriff’s Office can work better as a department and in the community is saying that Mayor Lenny Curry's half-cent sales tax proposal is not enough to fix the pension crisis and other problems facing the department.

A draft report by the panel says the sales tax proposal that voters are being asked to approve in the Aug. 30 primary would be a step in the right direction, but it also calls for a hike in property taxes to close the nearly $2.5 billion financial gap.

The mayor expressed anger Monday about the attention that the preliminary report has received. He said the report was not complete, had not been reviewed by the full committee, its chairman or Sheriff Mike Williams, and that its release was an effort to derail the sales tax referendum.

Williams said he would refrain from commenting on the task force recommendations until he reviews the final report and develops a plan of action, but added: "I have been made aware of the resources task force recommendation to increase the millage rate, and personally I am not in favor of this option at such a fragile time in our fiscal recovery. I would like to see the mayor's pension reform pass so we can solve our unfunded pension liability."

DRAFT REPORT:  Strategic Initiative Resources Task Force
STATEMENT: Sheriff Mike Williams doesn't support property tax hike
UNCUT: Mayor Curry, City Council President Lori Boyer address taxes

Curry said the half-cent sales tax proposal, which would go into effect in 2030 and replace the Better Jacksonville tax, would solve the pension problem "once and for all," and is all that is needed to give the city financial stability. He said Williams agrees with that approach.

"(Williams) supports my pension reform 100 percent," Curry said. "He does not support a millage increase. Basically the information was taken from a draft report that he hasn't even reviewed. ... Pension reform -- county referendum No. 1 -- solves the problem. It solves our unfunded pension liability."

City Council President Lori Boyer said the mayor's plan is the way to go.

“We need to find a solution to pay the unfunded liability that doesn't cause all of our residents extraordinary pain from an economic standpoint and cause them to move elsewhere,” Boyer said.

The task force, made up of business people, citizens and people with law enforcement experience and headed by Jacksonville University President Tim Cost, was put together by Williams last October to study training, transparency, resources and community engagement in the department. Its preliminary report calls for 400 new officers to be added to the force and suggests that current officers need a pay raise and better benefits.

The report said the half-cent tax would benefit only the pension debt and would not cover the cost of new officers. But Curry disagreed.

“We will have the funds we need to make sure we are a safe city, and I'm not going to address the suggestions in the draft report from a committee,” Curry said. “I will address the needs of the sheriff's department with the sheriff.”

In his budget presentation last week, Curry called for adding 40 new officers and 40 new community service officers.

The draft report appeared to have been posted on the Jacksonville Sheriff's Office website on June 30, but was removed early Monday morning.

The group said it wants a competitive and reliable pension plan and called for a hike in the property tax rate, which Curry has repeatedly said he would not support.

“It is interesting to me that two days before absentee ballots drop, the news coverage is nonstop on a draft report that the sheriff hasn’t even reviewed,” Curry said.

The study challenged the assumption that Jacksonville’s large pension debt was created by lavish retirement benefits, saying instead that it stems from a failure by the city to invest in police.

Starting salaries are small compared to similar-sized cities across the nation and in the state, making JSO officers some of the best-educated but lowest-paid officers in major Florida cities.

The head of the committee looking into the sheriff's office was not available for comment Monday.

Bill Sheu, who headed up the original task force on pension reform and is considered the city's go-to person for problems, said he had not read the latest report, so he could not comment. He said he plans to vote in favor of Curry's pension plan.

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