“This has to pass.”
On Tuesday, in the atrium of Jacksonville’s City Hall, Mayor Lenny Curry held the first of 10 town hall meetings with city employees over the next couple of months, with the aim of selling the pension tax referendum, which he called “one of the most important votes Jacksonville has faced in its consolidated history.”
As has been the case since Curry began messaging toward extending the half-cent infrastructure tax as far out as 2060 to deal with the unfunded pension liability of 2016, the language was urgent and the hard sell was on to “Team COJ.”
Curry began his remarks by noting the “tough years” endured by city employees during the revenue crisis created by the $2.7 billion unfunded pension liability, billing the referendum as a “solution once and for all,” a solution which would close the old plan to new employees.
Much of what Curry said was familiar to those paying attention.
Curry noted the current unfunded liability is almost three times the operating budget, an untenable situation that has created a local version of a “big crisis facing every city” and “governments around the country.”
In Jacksonville, where the current fiscal year’s hit from the unfunded liability is $260 million, services have been “slowly cut over years.”
A new bit of information: Curry said that based on current estimates, the current unfunded liability would be “fully funded around 2045.”
Curry also sought to reassure the future pensioners: “all three plans are closed to new employees only,” with the only hit to current employees being a hike from 8 to 10 percent of their income for their contribution.
New employees, said Curry, will receive “plans that reflect the market” and are “sustainable” as a result of collective bargaining every three years.
“City employees did not create this problem,” said Curry; rather, the culprit was “bad decisions made over years.”
Curry outlined the elements of the campaign to sell the pension tax, including a website, TV ads, mail pieces, and “grassroots” efforts, like the town hall meeting.
“The website will be in language you understand,” Curry told one employee, “and you will probably get tired of getting mail from me and seeing me on TV.”
As well, he expects “wherever you see suffering,” a category that includes issues ranging from infrastructure woes to public safety shortfalls, to be something voters should notice as proof positive that the dedicated revenue source for the unfunded liability must be approved.
And, as he has said many times, he is “absolutely opposed” to a millage hike.
Ultimately, Curry is all in behind the sales tax extension, and expects to bring voters along with him.
“Friends, we’ve got one shot at this … there is no going back to Tallahassee and getting a second bite of the apple.”
As has been the case for many of these pitches, there is a certain castor oil effect to the language.
“I can tell you without question,” Curry said, “a reduction of services” would result if the referendum failed.
“Without a yes vote,” Curry said, “the financial crisis … will only get worse.”
“The crisis exists now,” Curry added, but it can be solved.
With a yes vote.
The close involved Curry, the CPA who campaigned as being “not a politician,” calling for what he referred to as a “rah rah moment.”
On the count of three, the dozens and dozens of city employees listening to Curry, not just from the atrium of City Hall, but also on each of the three floors and a mezzanine above, called out, in unison, “Yes for Jacksonville!”
Worth watching: the May fundraising report for the “Yes for Jacksonville” political committee, which will surface this week.
April, the first month of operations, saw an intake of $225,000.
There will be, of course, a direct correlation between the money this committee takes in through May and June, and the message presented to the public in July and August.