COVER STORY

Pension Crisis

Confused by all the talk about the pension fund? We're here to help.

Shan Stumpf
Jacksonville Revenue Reform Task Force leader William Scheu
Dennis Ho
Police & Fire Pension Fund executive director John Keane
Dennis Ho
City Council President Bill Gulliford
Dennis Ho
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The topline number is frightening:
$2.74 billion. 

The details are scary, too: 
This massive funding gap in the city of Jacksonville’s pension funds for police and firefighters and other employees is expected to grow at a 7-percent-per-year clip, consuming greater and greater chunks of Jacksonville’s budget, forcing the city in turn to raise taxes or slash services or both. Already the credit rating agency Moody’s has put Jacksonville on notice, a move that could soon make it more difficult and expensive for the city to borrow. If nothing is done, the problem will continue to escalate – as it has in cities all over the country, to sometimes devastating effects. Last year, you’ll recall, Detroit filed for bankruptcy to get out from under its crushing $3.5 billion pension debt.

You’d be forgiven for wondering if we’re next. Jacksonville’s not alone, but its case is among the direst. As Steven Halverson, president of Jacksonville Civic Council, put it in a June letter to Mayor Alvin Brown and City Council President Bill Gulliford, “A majority of pension funds in the U.S. are underfunded. But Jacksonville is among the worst-funded public plans in Florida.”

Last year, the mayor appointed the Jacksonville Retirement Reform Task Force and charged it with figuring out a way to dig the Police and Fire Pension Fund – the largest and deepest-in-the-red of the city’s three pension funds – out of its hole. The task force’s final report is due soon.

But on Jan. 21, Mayor Brown pre-empted his own task force by releasing his own plan – no new taxes, but the JEA has to conjure $40 million a year out of thin air – his second attempt in as many years to be the hero of this saga.

So far, the other players’ reactions have been tepid at best.

If there were an easy answer, a quick fix, the city would have figured it out by now. Instead, there are competing factions – a mayor up for re-election who desperately wants not to raise taxes; a utility that doesn’t want to be the scapegoat; a pension board demanding that the city’s cops and firefighters don’t get shortchanged – and a recipe for gridlock.

Confused? Totally understandable. It’s complicated! But rest assured, good citizens, we’re here to help. What follows is our handy guide, an explainer: everything you ever wanted to know about Jacksonville’s pension crisis but were afraid to ask.

 

You say there’s a “pension crisis.” What’s wrong with the current system?
Simply put, the city can’t afford it.

Like most cities, Jacksonville offers its employees a defined benefit plan – a pension – instead of a 401(k) or similar package commonplace in the private sector. City employees, the state and the city all pay into a fund, which is then invested, and the returns are used for the retirement and disability benefits promised to city workers. Cops and firefighters, for instance, contribute 7 percent of their salaries, while the state chips in 4 percent and the city adds another 3 percent each year as a cost-of-living increase.

Over the last decade, the city’s annual contribution to the pension has skyrocketed, growing by 1,125 percent, from $10 million in 2003 to $122 million in 2013. That $122 million is more than 12 percent of the city’s annual operating budget, and comes from the same pot as funds for libraries, the arts, police and firefighters, and parks. Every dollar that goes to the pension fund is a dollar that doesn’t go to some other essential city service.

But it’s still not enough – not even close. Think of it like a credit card: You can pay the minimum balance, but it’s better to pay more. The city usually pays the minimum, and that’s part of the problem.

There are others reasons for the shortfall, too: the fund’s lower-than-expected investment returns; retirees living longer and, thus, drawing more from the fund; state restrictions on how pensions can be invested; and added benefits negotiated between the city and the pension funds, including the Deferred Retirement Option Plan and cost-of-living increases.

Taken together, it’s a perfect storm.

The total unfunded liability, or the amount by which promised payouts exceed available revenue, of the city’s three pension plans – the General Employee Pension Plan, the Corrections Officer Pension Plan, and the Police & Fire Pension Plan – is now $2.7 billion. The Police & Fire Pension Fund’s unfunded liability is $1.7 billion, which is why the mayor’s task force focused on that one.


So this is the city’s fault?
In part, sure. But the country’s general economic malaise and generous payouts to retirees – a cop can retire after only 20 years and receive 60 percent of his salary for the rest of his life – have played a role, too.

City officials, however, will tell you that the Police & Fire Pension Fund has overestimated the amount it would receive from its investments, leaving the city on the hook for the rest.

“The city has to pay this money to the pension fund,” says John Keane, who has worked for the city since the Kennedy administration and has run the Police & Fire Pension Fund since ’72. “It belongs to the police and firefighters who have served our citizens.”

 

Didn’t Mayor Brown try to fix this already?
Good memory. Last May, Brown proposed shifting new employees into a 401(k)-type plan, making employees pay larger percentages of their salaries into the pension fund, increasing the length of time employees have to work before collecting their pensions from 20 years to 30, and reducing annual cost-of-living increases and disability payments to pensioners.

And, he said, the pension fund had signed off. Problem solved. “It’s a great day for the city of Jacksonville,” Brown exclaimed at a City Hall news conference.

But then, under pressure from the Jacksonville Civic Council – a group of local movers and shakers who thought Brown’s proposal wasn’t a long-term solution – the City Council, which doesn’t like the mayor very much, shot him down cold.

With his proposal imploding, Brown appointed an 18-member task force, headed by attorney William Scheu of the firm Rogers Towers, to examine the pension program and make recommendations on how to fix it. Scheu has been the city’s unofficial problem-solver for decades, heading up a troubled supervisor of elections office and auditing Pell Grants at Florida State College at Jacksonville.

“I hope we can come up with something that all the parties can agree to,” Scheu told Folio Weekly last month. “I certainly don’t have that agreement yet.”

The group’s final report was initially due Feb. 19, though that’s been pushed back at least a week.

 

What will the task force propose?
We don’t know yet, but based on the group’s two draft reports, the task force will likely suggest that the city contribute $210 million a year toward the pension fund – including $90 million in new funding. If the city does that, the pension will be solvent by 2036.

But that money has to come from somewhere, and the city won’t get it from a bake sale.

Brown, like a lot of politicians – especially politicians up for re-election, which he is next year – opposes tax hikes. Instead, in December he began talking about selling the city’s “lazy assets” – old, unused buildings, including the former courthouse land and the shipyards. The city has identified 393 properties that have a cumulative taxable value of $91.7 million.

 

But that’s different from the plan Brown announced in January, right?
Right. His new plan seeks to get money from the JEA, the pension fund and city workers. But we’ll get to that in a minute.

 

Why didn’t the task force ask city employees to contribute more, too?
Actually, the task force did talk about reducing benefits and increasing employee contributions, as well as closing down the current pension plans and replacing them with cheaper options. But neither the task force nor the City Council can do that unilaterally.

One of the task force’s expected recommendations is to change a 30-year agreement the city made with the Police & Fire Pension Fund back in 2000. This deal applies to all police and firefighters hired by the city through Sept. 30, 2030, and contains specific provisions for benefits, funding requirements and actuarial assumptions. All of that means the city will need the pension fund’s buy-in to alter the arrangement anytime in the near future.

The Concerned Taxpayers of Duval County group has filed a lawsuit challenging the agreement, alleging it was negotiated in violation of open meeting laws. Fourth Judicial Circuit Judge James Daniel will hear that suit in April.

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