Jacksonville pension proposal: A 'shock' to firefighters - Florida Politics

Jacksonville pension proposal: A ‘shock’ to firefighters

Tuesday saw senior staff from the city of Jacksonville locked in negotiations with representatives from the Jacksonville Association of Firefighters.

Spoiler alert: those negotiations won’t be wrapped up in time for Thanksgiving. The fire union seems to prefer switching to the Florida Retirement System’s pension plan; the city likes defined contribution.

That is a huge gap.

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Collective bargaining has become a focus of the Lenny Curry administration, especially in light of the August referendum that requires closing of the current plans for new hires to unlock a guaranteed revenue stream years from now, from a half-cent sales tax that otherwise would sunset.

Union heads and city leaders presented a united front in getting approval for the referendum in Tallahassee, and in marketing the referendum in August.

However, collective bargaining is where the rubber hits the road. And what is clear is that the defined contribution model pushed by Curry and the fourth floor of City Hall is at cross purposes with at least one union, which sees the security of defined benefit pensions as essential to recruit and retain quality workers.

Jacksonville Association of Fire Fighters head Randy Wyse laid the facts on the table Tuesday in collective bargaining with the city.

The proposed pension agreement from the city of Jacksonville, offering defined contribution plans for new hires, is not good for his department.

Wyse noted the media had examined the proposal, which came as a “shock to a lot of firefighters.”

“Looks like a lot of people have looked at the plan,” Wyse said, name dropping The American Spectator magazine and Americans for Prosperity.

Wyse noted his union has played ball with the city for nine years, pointing out that firefighters took a 2 percent pay cut in the John Peyton administration, and supported “whatever the pension fund agreed to.”

Calling the current pension plan “arguably the worst defined benefit plan in the state of Florida,” Wyse noted that when Mayor Lenny Curry “proposed the half-cent sales tax, we were supportive.”

Just as Curry “burned a lot of political capital” pushing the pension plan, “so did we.”

The firefighters spent $60,000 marketing the Yes for Jacksonville referendum, and Wyse himself spent “hours upon hours” pushing the plan at “every knife-and-fork club there was.”

“Your proposal,” said Wyse, “will not recruit or retain” workers.

Wyse already spotlighted force attrition: 11 people have left in the last six months, for “better pay and better pensions elsewhere.”

Five interviews with new recruits were cancelled, over uncertainty over pension and benefits.

“I’m moving on to Orlando, Tampa, wherever it might be,” Wyse said regarding this workforce talent.

There are gaps between the union and the city on multiple issues, including projections of a consistent 7 percent rate of return and whether death benefits are in the plan or not.

Another sticking point for Wyse: a judicial decree from the federal court that pension benefits can’t be touched for seven years.

“We’re not waiving any of our rights,” Wyse said. “We’re not saying we’re not willing to talk, but we’re not waiving any rights.”

“I’ve got some real issues with no answer,” Wyse said to city negotiators, regarding the federal court agreement.

Another issue Wyse had: pension reform agreed to in 2015 is supposed to hold for seven years.

The fire union did have a proposal ready, and after some discussion among city negotiators, they agreed to not use the proposal “offensively” against the union.

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A press release from the fire union laid out the objections to the proposal, which “does not qualify as a plan to either fully compensate or retain current employees to acceptable levels.”

“Jacksonville cannot afford to be a turnstile city for firefighters/paramedics,” the release continued.

The IAFF proposal posited a “one-time lump sum consideration” of 5 percent for 2016, for firefighters, engineers, lieutenants, and captains. As well, employees classified as Group II members under the 2015 agreement (those hired after June 30, 2015) would be changed to Group I. That classification allows for a five-year vesting period and retirement after 20 years of service.

COLA would be returned to 3 percent per year under the fire union proposal. The Deferred Retirement Option Program rate of return: 8.4 percent per year.

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City negotiators had a verbal response to some components, with others to be taken back under advisement.

The proposed move of Group II under Group I: under advisement.

A proposal to move employees to the Florida Retirement System: rejected, as the city insists upon defined contribution and the bargaining on a local level.

Death benefits would be “comparable” to what current employees have under the defined benefit plan, said city negotiators.

COLA increases would be 14 percent recurring and 2 percent non-recurring over the course of five years.

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“I’m very disappointed in the quick rejection of our formal retirement proposal,” Wyse said.

“The mayor said on Day 1 he wanted out of the pension business,” Wyse said, noting the Florida Retirement System proposal would accomplish that.

Wyse added that Clay County firefighters were watching, with one chief saying that “if [Jacksonville] goes to FRS, we’re going to lose everybody.”

Wyse reiterated issues with recruitment on the police side and retention on the fire side.

The city, meanwhile, balked again at the FRS proposal, not wanting to “leave it to the Legislature” to determine benefits.

Wyse and city negotiators talked about the level of risk assumed by the parties.

“What I perceive to be your risk: zero. There’s no risk to the city in your proposal,” Wyse said. “You’re just saying ‘here’s some money’ and all the risk is on the employee.”

“Risk to me is what you don’t know,” Wyse added.

Wyse notes the dangers firefighters face, such as running into burning buildings, getting shot at, and so on.

“We take on that risk unknown,” Wyse said, noting that firefighters wear bulletproof vests now, something he never expected to be the case.

Wyse noted that the firefighters are at 2006 wage levels, and sees the city’s proposed raise — which he and his team framed as 1.8 percent per annum — as a “lot low” and not aligned with the “commitment we’ve had from Day 1” from the city regarding pension reform.

As the noon hour approached, the discussion became less polite and more animated, with Wyse at one point questioning whether the city proposal is a pension plan at all.

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