Alvin Brown may finally have gotten the monkey off his back. Last week, the mayor announced an agreement with the Jacksonville Police & Fire Pension Fund to stave off the city's looming crisis and get the cops' and firefighters' pensions 80-percent funded by sometime around 2030. If it works out, Brown will at last have slayed the beast that has tormented his administration, and administrations before his, and put the city on a path toward fiscal stability — which, for a man so often criticized for his leadership skills, is a big deal.
Now comes the hard part: selling the damn thing.
As always, the devil is in the details (many of which we don't yet know). And in the politics. Within days, Steve Halverson of the Jacksonville Civic Council, the group that helped derail last year's pension-fix proposal, tentatively came out against it. Bill Scheu, chairman of the mayor's own pension reform task force, voiced skepticism. Members of City Council piled on, saying the agreement puts too much of the touted "shared sacrifice" on the taxpayer, and not enough on the pension fund.
And then there's the math: In exchange for concessions from the pension fund on workers' contributions, cost-of-living increases (for new hires) and DROP payouts, the city has committed an extra $40 million a year, and it's not at all clear where that money's going to come from, and the mayor's office, in typical form, seems quite pleased to defer to City Council. Sure, there will be a special committee that meets every year to figure it out, but at the end of the day, Council sets the budget, and as Brown spokesman David DeCamp points out, the mayor doesn't get to veto it under the city charter. So if Council passes a tax hike, that's on them. Brown still gets to be the anti-tax guy. Neat trick.
Unsurprisingly, some Council members aren't fond of this game. "I don't think the Council will go anywhere without the mayor having a full description of how that's going to happen and without his 100 percent support," John Crescimbeni told the Times-Union. "To actually commit to something and not have any revenue source is sophomoric," added Matt Schellenberg. Their points are not without merit.
DeCamp told me that the mayor's idea was to build in flexibility — no two fiscal years are alike, after all — while ensuring that the city doesn't kick the can down the road when it becomes inconvenient. That's not entirely convincing. If Brown wants credit for fixing this beguiling problem — and he does — he needs to own the ugly parts, too.
Even less convincing, however, is the argument that the mayor should have demanded more blood from cops and firefighters in the form of halved cost-of-living adjustments for current employees, even if that demand torpedoed the larger agreement. The truth is, just like the private sector, if you want top-flight employees, you need top-flight compensation. It's the price of doing business, especially in hazardous lines of work. Great cities aren't cheap cities.
This isn't a perfect deal. But it's something. And for a mayor coming up on re-election, it's better than nothing.
Unless it falls apart. Which it might.