This is a pivotal time in Jacksonville’s city hall.
With complete turnover in the city’s delegation to Washington and opportunities created by the new President, majority turnover in the city’s representation in Tallahassee, a revolutionary pension deal currently being approved by the city’s unions, and the imperiled fate of Enterprise Florida, this is a make or break time for Mayor Lenny Curry.
He discussed all these topics with us – exclusively – on Friday.
Expect more from D.C.: The mayor met with Rep. John Rutherford on Wednesday.
“We caught up … talked JAXPORT, public safety,” Curry said.
In addition to leaning on Rutherford, an ally of long standing, Curry also will take advantage of connections within the Donald Trump administration – including Chief of Staff Reince Priebus.
“I’ve already got messages in to the Trump Administration. I’d like the federal government to be able to help us in some form in Jacksonville. I don’t know what that looks like yet. But we’re going to leverage every relationship we have to get help here with issues we’re facing, specifically on the public safety front, and the port is a huge issue,” Curry said.
Jacksonville is uniquely positioned in terms of the Trump administration. Ballard Partners employs Susie Wiles, a city hall veteran and a close ally and friend of Curry, and she will be doing work in the nation’s capital in addition to Jacksonville. And Marty Fiorentino is in Washington right now also, doing consulting for Transportation Secretary Elaine Chao.
The city contracts with both Ballard and Fiorentino on the state level.
“Certainly we have relationships [in D.C.],” Curry said. “I have direct relationships as well with Reince Priebus and others. We have an RFP [in process] regarding lobbying for the feds. Expect to see movement there.”
Duval Delegation: There have been grumbles from inside city hall about the relative effectiveness of the Duval County Legislative Delegation.
Committee assignments: weak. Bills filed: often ancillary to city priorities. Leverage with leadership: dubious.
However, Mayor Curry was focused on what could be done.
Despite the relative paucity of appropriations requests on many key issues, Curry noted that he’d been “working with our delegation on priorities I’ve laid out. One of the big ones is septic tank removal. The city’s looking for a match – a big match. That is an issue that’s environmental … that will help us honor promises that were made pre-Consolidation.”
“I’m working with the delegation toward the priorities that I have, and I think we’ll work very successfully,” Curry said.
In a related note, Curry’s office announced Friday that the Florida Department of Transportation has committed $250,000 to a study of the Hart Bridge ramps.
Curry rolled out a potential $50 million ask to remove the antiquated ramps, which present public safety and aesthetic concerns, last year to the Duval Delegation.
Traffic would be routed on to Bay Street under the latest conceptual proposal for replacement, creating a direct route into the Sports Complex and a developing entertainment district close to the river.
That request got de-emphasized, however, and looks more likely to be done in a more gradual manner than the mayor’s office initially wanted.
Pension Deal Will Save the City Money: Jacksonville’s Fraternal Order of Police overwhelmingly voted to approve the city’s pension offer on Thursday.
One union – the Jacksonville Association of Fire Fighters – is left to approve the pact, which will offer raises to current employees and defined contribution plans to new hires.
Curry was reflective on the process.
“This has been a very long road, this pension reform. Yet we’ve traveled this road aggressively and in a short window. It hasn’t even been a year since the last legislative session,” Curry said.
In fact, the referendum passed less than six months ago – which kicked off the collective bargaining that appears to be reaching its conclusion.
“So we are close. The yes vote by the police membership [shows] they recognize that this is good for them, it’s good for taxpayers, and it’s good for the city of Jacksonville. We’re going to continue to work for the fire membership vote, and the Police and Fire Pension Fund vote, and then the city council vote – and then be done with this,” Curry said, noting that the proposal yokes two of his campaign priorities – public safety and budget discipline.
“When this pension reform is done and final,” Curry said, “our budgets will be responsible and they’ll allow us to fund the things that I said I’d focus on – the things that voters voted me into office on.”
Yet questions remain, still, about whether this plan saves money for the city
The actuarial projections used in 2016, when last released to the public, were predicated on 10 or 12 percent contributions from the city to the employee’s retirement, far short of the 25 percent in the current proposal.
Though the actuarial projections have not been released and likely won’t be for at least a bit longer, Curry contends the plan will save the city money on its public safety retirement plans.
“Right now we’re spending 119 percent of [salary] for [pension costs] for every JSO employee and fireman,” Curry said. “If we hired you today, we would take your salary and put 119 percent of that in the pension fund. That’s not sustainable.”
“25 percent is a fraction of 119 percent. It works. It will attract and retain people.”
“As to when the numbers will be made available,” Curry said, “City Council will have to vote on this, and all of these numbers will be laid out before them, which is how the budget process works.”
“The public will see them, the council will debate it, people will be able to make their opinions known at the time, and I think they’ll have a favorable opinion.”
The Police and Fire Pension Fund will also have the data needed to make a decision, Curry said, before the Mar. 15 deadline.
Enterprise Florida: Slowly but surely, locals are compelled to take sides on the Enterprise Florida debate.
The JAX Chamber endorsed the concept Thursday. And on Friday, Mayor Curry offered insight as to why.
One issue that many in the Florida Legislature have not considered: for cities like Jacksonville, Enterprise Florida has offered meaningful benefit, as Curry told us.
“Let me speak specifically to Jacksonville and how we work here,” Curry said.
“We use incentives – local incentives and state incentives through Enterprise Florida – and we use them successfully,” Curry contended.
The city’s scorecard, which ensures ROI for taxpayers when incentives are offered, is designed to ensure an “inflow of tax dollars that exceeds that investment.”
“I would say that incentives are important to us. They’re used in a way that respects the taxpayers. Without the state funding,” Curry said, “we would have had trouble closing some of the big deals that we closed.”
“They’re talking about reforms over there [in Tallahassee],” Curry said. “I can tell you how we do business locally. We use our tax dollars in a way that’s responsible to taxpayers, and we’ve been able to use the state incentives the same way. I hope they can figure out a way to continue to give us the opportunity to have access to state incentives.”