Pension Task Force holds final meeting

By Jim Piggott - Reporter

JACKSONVILLE, Fla. - The Pension Reform Task Force held its final meeting Wednesday before presenting its recommendations for a solution to Jacksonville's pension problem.

The task force was put together to find a solution to the pension problem in Jacksonville and has come up with its recommendations, calling for a property or sales tax increase to get the city out of its $1.7 billion pension mess.

Wednesday was the last time the group will meet before presenting their report to the city.

The Pension Reform Task Force has been hard at work trying to solve Jacksonville's pension problems since August, having met 17 times.

"I expect some discussion, but generally the report is done and it's just tweaking it at this point in time," said Bill Scheu, chairman of the task force.

The recommendation is just the start. The plan calls for changes in state law, council approval, union approval, and voters' approval.

The plan will also have to be approved by the pension board because it calls for major changes in the way pension funds are handled. For example, new Employees would be able to retire at the age of 62 or after 30 years of service, they would have to make a 10 percent contribution.

Current police and firefighters would have to eventually pay more into the plan. They would pay from 7 to 8 percent and then increase to 10 percent. That is to make up for earlier pay cuts that they took. Union leaders say this not for them to decide if is acceptable.

"Others have said in there that's contrary to Florida statues and some is contrary to settlement agreement," fire union president Randy Wyse said. "So what I think is going to happen is the city and pension fund take some of those recommendation and see what comes out best."

John Keane, the head of the Police and Fire Pension Fund, said this will not be anytime soon because laws need to be changed and there will need to negotiations.

"There is a lot more road to travel before this journey is over," he said.

Scheu said there are three big areas that impact Jacksonville residents: 1) governance of the Police and Fire Pension Fund. Scheu said they recommend a financial and advisory committee supervise the fund for the next 10 to 12 years. 2) Some changes to new and existing city employees, including asking them to contribute a little bit more. And 3) funding the $1.7 billion unfunded liability with the help of increase taxes.

"We proposed to do that through a half cent per dollar sales tax, which would be subject to a referendum of the people and if that referendum of the people would get to decide whether they prefer to add a millage increase or the sales tax," said Scheu.

Although the task force said the city should consider raising taxes to fund it, another option still being discussed is raising JEA rates. Mayor Alvin Brown is pushing for JEA to contribute more to the city from its profit to pay down the cost. Tuesday, JEA customers in St. Johns County pleaded with their county commissioners to tell JEA, no way.

"I'm paying for that profit. And I have to pay my own taxes here to support my own government here. Why do I have to pay for my county and that county. It's ridiculous," said Ellen Whitmer, a St. Johns County JEA member.

The task force will present its plan to the mayor, City Council president and the administrator of the police and fire pension fund at 10 a.m. Thursday.

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