Alvin Brown's pension agreement is less a victory than an opening for opponents to take him down
Way back during the first iteration of this column, a decade ago, around the time John Peyton was first elected, a well-connected local source wanted to plant a story about the forthcoming unfunded liability issues related to public pensions in Duval County.
For a variety of reasons, that story never came to fruition. Looking back, it should have.
The Police & Fire Pension crisis represents a crossroads for the city of Jacksonville — a crossroads where the guarantees that existed for the white-collar middle class a half-century ago, and that exist for Jacksonville Sheriff's Office and the Jacksonville Fire & Rescue Department employees today, are examined under the harsh light of 21st-century fiscal realities, in a brave new world in which the Golden Years of yesteryear have faded into a future where septuagenarians work the drive-through. The old "We're Spending Our Grandchildren's Inheritance" bumper stickers have long since disappeared, as did the humor behind them.
No one who grows old in America will be spared financial uncertainty (and just wait until the dollar is no longer the world's reserve currency). Still, the people of Jacksonville (as in most places) recognize that a greater good is served by ensuring cops and firefighters receive some sort of pension, a deferred appreciation for services rendered. The trouble is getting there — making sure that the so-called "shared sacrifice" is actually equally shared, and that the pension plan is adequately financed.
Easier said than done.
If the recent deal between Mayor Alvin Brown and Police & Fire Pension Fund executive director John Keane goes through, one thing is guaranteed: Somebody will get screwed. The question is who.
The mayor is eyeing JEA, which Brown seems to believe can fork over an extra $40 million a year without raising rates. Instead, the city says, JEA could reduce benefits for new hires and remove its employees from the city's General Employee Pension Plan. Both JEA and members of City Council have voiced skepticism, to put it mildly.
If that's a no-go, the onus turns to you, taxpayer. Yes, the pension deal creates an annual committee whose job it is to find that $40 million, but, ultimately, City Council sets the budget. If the city's on the hook, that money's got to come from somewhere — and even if that somewhere is the higher taxes the mayor opposes, under the city charter, Brown can't veto it.
Another group of sacrificial lambs: new police and fire hires, who will bear a disproportionate burden of larger pay-ins and smaller payouts. Pensions for new hires would start at age 62 (as opposed to 60 for current employees). They'd also get smaller cost-of-living increases and other benefit reductions.
All of this raises a disturbing paradox, that of warriors on the frontlines of our city's turf wars who can't look forward to financial stability in their retirement. The alternative, however, is a city suffocating under the weight of pension promises it cannot afford to keep. The deal was Brown's effort at bridging that divide. In that sense, it's a victory.
But it still looks more like an election-year gambit — less policy than politics. This explains the mayoral office's "take it or leave it" approach, one that rankles Republicans on the City Council, Republicans who have every incentive to play the obstructionist and have, in the form of so many unanswered questions, plenty of room to push back — something this mayor has not dealt with very effectively so far.
With Brown meeting recalcitrance from the City Council on other issues — e.g., water taxis — it seems the game is becoming more partisan by the week. Alvin Brown — the "no new taxes" Democrat, who seemed to augur a new 21st-century Jacksonville consensus — will face more political pressures in the next few months than he has in the last few years, and he'll face them with deep-pocketed folks like Lenny Curry and Peter Rummell on the sidelines, ready to take him down. That's not an enviable position.