Jacksonville, fire union make conceptual progress in pension reform talks - Florida Politics

Jacksonville, fire union make conceptual progress in pension reform talks

On Wednesday morning, the city of Jacksonville enhanced its pension/benefits offer to the police union. Wednesday afternoon saw a similar conversation with the fire union.

Just as with the police union negotiations, Jacksonville Mayor Lenny Curry was on hand at the fire union.

The tone was more genial, with Curry and Wyse joking about some matters ahead of the negotiations, and with Curry saying he appreciated the “good faith” tone of negotiations during the discussion.

However, the parameters of the fire meeting were similar to that of the police meeting: the union resisted even the generous terms of the defined contribution proposal, saying that a 401K was never meant to replace pensions, and that such a proposal would run counter to the department’s “culture.”

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Fire Union head Randy Wyse, concerned about recruitment and retention, noted that the cost of Florida Retirement System for new hires was comparable to the 401K proposal advanced at the police union meeting.

Palm Coast, Wyse said, has a 401K plan — the only other one in Florida.

Over the last nine years, that department has had 100 percent turnover.

“We just want the same plan everyone else is eligible for,” Wyse said.

Curry reiterated his concerns about losing “local control” via FRS, before going into his administration’s offer: a 20 percent raise over three years, a full restoration of the 8.4 percent DROP rate of return, and a 3 percent COLA.

“It’s a stretch,” said Curry, “but it’s the right thing to do.”

Curry termed this as “restoring what was taken away” via the 2015 accord.

As with the police defined contribution plan, the city contribution would be 25 percent per year of salary for new hires.

“Whether we have a defined contribution or defined benefit plan,” Curry said, “we’re going to have to work together.”

“Wherever we end,” Curry added, “I’m going to stand with public safety.”

CAO Sam Mousa noted that FRS lowered its rate of return from 7.65 to 7.6 percent recently, and that’s “some of the risk” assumed in the FRS plan.

“There’s nothing sacred about the FRS. There are ups, and there are downs,” Mousa said.

Fire union representatives predicted that, with a defined contribution plan, turnover would be likely to happen here with the new hires after about the five year mark, just as it has happened in Palm Coast.

Curry noted that the defined contribution plan will be “very attractive” to new hires, and current employees will be happy with the pay raises.

“Whether it’s DC or DB,” Curry said, the goal is to retain people.

“The plan I put on the table, in good faith I believe, will attract and retain people,” Curry added.

“People aren’t leaving the department right now because of DC,” Curry said, adding that the proposal restores the original pension parameters for current employees.

Randy Wyse of the fire union noted that “the culture of our department is not 401K … our culture doesn’t lead well to your plan … puts citizens and existing fire fighters at great risk.”

Curry stood his ground, pointing out the benefit of the raises, and lauding the sacrifices made by public safety workers.

“While I’m not embedded in that culture, I appreciate it at a distance,” Curry said.

And with that, he departed.

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Yet negotiations continued.

The city’s written proposal was presented, with the wage increases in 2017 and 2018 being 6.5 percent, and 2019 being 7 percent, along with the “one-time lump sum consideration” of 3 percent of salary upon agreeing to the deal.

The city, as it did with the police union, vowed to restore all existing employee plans to levels preceding the 2015 pension deal.

The proposal would “successfully dissolve the 2015 Retirement Reform Agreement,” said the written proposal.

“However the chapter funds were used before,” Mousa said, “if we void it completely. Whatever was in place before that would be what we use.”

Mousa reiterated the city’s intent to bargain in good faith, also adding that his goal was to have something in place by March,

“We’re concerned,” Mousa said, “that we’re stuck and going to miss the window.”

Mousa added that balancing the budget might not be any easier given the raises proposed.

“As the mayor said this morning, we’re putting a very good faith [effort] … in this stretch proposal,” Mousa said.

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Despite the good faith voiced, there are still deep concerns on the union side, regarding the material change proposed in these plans of long standing.

“We’ll be two years out of contract by October, 2017,” Wyse said, noting that the police union was out of contract for a year longer.

Meanwhile, preliminary discussions were held about material changes to the 2015 pension deal, with the city asking for a written proposal from the fire union about what should be included from that deal in a potential new deal.

After the meeting, reporters talked to Randy Wyse, who seemed positive about what transpired.

“Questions were answered,” Wyse said, adding that in the case of a 401K, “I never said it wasn’t an option” for new hires.

“It’s all on the table,” Wyse added.

While Wyse still believes that FRS is best for “recruitment and retention,” Wednesday’s meeting suggests that there may be room for a workable compromise between the city and the fire union, though the exact parameters are unclear at this point.

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