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Health care plan changes loom for Jacksonville fire, police

Jacksonville City Council committees on Monday and Tuesday approved changes in collective bargaining for fire and police employees that could change health plans.

Ordinances 2018-756 and 2018-757 would allow the unions to separate from the city health care plan in 2020. They were passed without opposition in both committees of reference (“Neighborhoods, Community Services, Public Health and Safety” on Monday, and “Finance” on Tuesday).

But not without some intrigue.

Ahead of Monday’s meeting, the Council Auditor had concerns about the deals the Mayor’s Office negotiated with the unions. Allowing this separation would “erode” consolidated government, with the city on the hook for costs of the plan but divested of bargaining authority, the office asserted.

“Assuming the separate plans occur, the City’s actuary projects that in calendar year 2020, the current healthcare plan costs for all other City employees/retirees will be $15.6 million (or 40.3%) more than what will be paid in by the City and other City employees/retirees,” the auditor’s comments contend.

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Other concerns: Those costs would go up every year, and there is no dedicated funding source. Added costs could be imposed by retirees rejoining the city plan. Meanwhile, the city would lose its ability to audit the plan.

Former Jacksonville CFO Mike Weinstein, who helped to negotiate the plan while still in an official capacity, noted Monday that the health changes were of “paramount importance” to the unions, but ultimately were a Council decision.

Currently, the unions are with Blue Cross Blue Shield, and are obliged to stay with BCBS until 2022. There are clauses to protect the city through that point, Weinstein said.

Weinstein also said the program could be audited by the city, via a separate trust account that will be set up for the city contribution.

Weinstein also noted that public safety may have a negotiating advantage on insurance rates, given the overall health of police and fire being better than that of city employees. With defined benefit plans not available for new hires after 2016’s pension reform, better health plans can help with recruitment.

“They’re going to go out and they’re going to have their own program,” Weinstein said Monday, noting that Council would get to review this every three years.

Councilman Garrett Dennis, a Democrat, wondered Monday if unions could be “pulled back” into city health care plans “for the betterment of the city.” Weinstein said that could happen during re-negotiations at three year intervals, and that the unions may decide not to make changes after review.

Tuesday’s discussion involved more of a drill down, but the fate of the bills were never in doubt, with Council members and union heads all saying kind things about how easy the process was compared to previous years with different heads and a different mayoral administration.

The full Council gets its shot next week. Due to unanimous committee votes, this bill will likely pass on the Consent Agenda.

Written By

A.G. Gancarski has been a working journalist for over two decades, with bylines in national and local publications alike on subjects ranging from pop music to national and global politics. Gancarski has been a correspondent for FloridaPolitics.com since 2014, and has held a column in Jacksonville, Florida's Folio Weekly for two decades. In 2018, he was a finalist for an Association of Alternative Newsweeklies "best political column." Gancarski is a frequent presence on Jacksonville television and radio, including fill-in slots on WJCT-FM's award-winning talk show "First Coast Connect." He can be reached at a.g.gancarski@gmail.com.

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