Jacksonville Archives - Florida Politics

Florida’s unemployment rate holds steady at 5%

Florida’s unemployment rate held steady at 5 percent in February.

This marks the second month in a row the state’s unemployment rate has been at 5 percent, and mirrors the unemployment rate the state experienced in the first two months of 2016, according to the Florida Department of Economic Opportunity.

The state added 239,800 jobs private sector jobs year-over-year in February. According to the DEO, the professional and business services industry added the most jobs — 43,000, or 3.4 percent increase — during the one-year period.

“I am proud to announce that Florida’s private-sector businesses have created nearly 54,000 new jobs in 2017,” said Gov. Rick Scott in a statement Friday. “Over the past six years, we have been relentless in our efforts to make Florida the most business-friendly state in the nation because a job is the most important thing to a family.”

The agency reported trade, transportation, and utilities added 42,000 jobs, or a 2.5 percent increase; education and health services added 40,500 jobs, or a 3.3 percent increase; and the leisure and hospitality industry added 40,300 jobs, or a 3.5 percent increase, during the same one- year period.

The Orlando region continued to lead the state in year-over-year job gains, adding 50,900 jobs between February 2016 and February 2017. The Tampa Bay region added 36,100 jobs during the one-year period, followed by Jacksonville with 25,900 jobs.

Jacksonville leaders’ arguments for state incentives fall on deaf ears in Tallahassee

Jacksonville may be Ground Zero for the debate about economic incentives. Local leaders want them, but the local Florida House delegation does not.

This week, yet another prominent person in Jacksonville’s City Hall sounded the alarm for state incentives via Enterprise Florida.

The Jacksonville Daily Record reports that local OED head Kirk Wendland made the case for Enterprise Florida on Tuesday to local stakeholders.

Wendland’s quotes are so on message with Gov. Rick Scott that they could have come out of his press shop.

“If any of you know any senators and you have any conversations with them, please convey that it’s serious. We are counting on them to save Enterprise Florida,” Wendland said.

To hear him tell it, the merry-go-round of economic development is slowing: “just the discussion of Enterprise Florida not being there, and not having a state economic development agency, has absolutely affected the deal flow that we have seen over the past couple of months.”

Consultants — the kind that handle site visits for companies — aren’t biting, saying “we’ll come talk to you” after the incentive fight wraps.

If Enterprise Florida is cut, it “will have a material impact on us being able to compete for major projects here in Florida, in Jacksonville specifically,” Wendland told the Daily Record.

Wendland’s words echo the positions of two members of the city council, Jim Love and Aaron Bowman (whose day job is with the Jacksonville Chamber of Commerce).

Bowman and Love are pushing a resolution to affirm support for Enterprise Florida, which they believe is especially important for Jacksonville compared to other major metros in the state.

The salient numbers for Councilman Love: 5,000 jobs and $650M in private capital investment since July 2015.

Even before the council resolution, Jacksonville Mayor Lenny Curry spoke to our Northeast Florida bureau about the need for incentives.

“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.”

Since the beginning of his mayoral administration in July 2015, Curry has evangelized for Enterprise Florida.

“Funding for Enterprise Florida is critical and important for Northeast Florida,” the mayor said in the summer of 2015. “It’s how we get deals done.”

It’s not just government workers who back Enterprise Florida.

It’s also the donor class, as Shad Khan made clear as early as 2015.

“I want to applaud Governor Scott,” Khan said. “If there is one lesson [to be derived] from Florida, it’s that economic development,” when prioritized, “leads to other things down the road.”

Such development can’t happen without Enterprise Florida, he said, and commented that the funding deficit is “disconcerting” because “the returns on funding are phenomenal.”

He urged the Legislature to “loosen the purse strings,” lest opportunity for corporate recruitment be lost.

Khan said, controversially at the time, that “there’s nothing iconic about Jacksonville.”

In that, he’s right.

Economic incentives have been the rising tide that has lifted at least some boats locally.

Companies like Macquarie, KLS Martin, and Deutsche Bank all expanded Jacksonville operations in the last two years.

All of those deals were incentive driven.

Jacksonville is an acquired taste for corporate types, used to the faster pace of life in New York or other traditional hotbeds.

However, it was just this year that Bloomberg reported that Jacksonville’s efforts, aided and abetted by state economic development, are paying off.

“Global financial companies including Frankfurt-based Deutsche Bank and Sydney-based Macquarie Group have been moving executives here and hiring locally, even while paring staff elsewhere.

“It’s part of a Wall Street trend known as nearshoring, in which banks are moving operations away from expensive financial centers like New York to places such as Jacksonville and North Carolina’s Research Triangle. Also in Jacksonville are more than 19,000 employees of Bank of America, Citigroup, JPMorgan Chase, and Wells Fargo,” Bloomberg notes, adding that Jacksonville is Deutsche Bank’s second largest American location.

In addition, the Bloomberg report notes that jobs in Jacksonville, such as those offered by Macquarie, are filled by “people whose jobs might otherwise have been filled in India. It provides a support staff that’s more convenient for its U.S.-based employees, while its Indian operation continues to focus on the Asia business.”

With two years of successful economic development under the current structure, it’s noteworthy that the Duval Delegation is unmoved by the results on the ground.

During this week’s vote on Enterprise Florida in the House, a grand total of one representative — Jay Fant — represented the position preferred by local policy makers.

Paul Renner, seen as an adjunct local legislator, is key to the battle against incentives.

Meanwhile, other Republicans (Cord ByrdJason FischerClay Yarborough) and both local Democrats (Tracie Davis and Kim Daniels) went with the Speaker and away from the constant drumbeat from locals that Jacksonville’s economic boom will lean toward bust without state incentives.

This has been a session of recalibrated expectations in Jacksonville’s city hall relative to this delegation: consider the aborted Hart Bridge offramp changes as a prime example.

The argument could be made, meanwhile, that the most effective lobbying on any measure by a local legislator has been by Rep. Daniels, on her bill expanding protections of “religious expression” in public schools.

Daniels took the bill over to the Senate, where she got Ocala Republican Dennis Baxley to carry it through committees to the Senate floor.

On the House side, meanwhile, the bill has had one committee hearing.

It was approved unanimously, with applause after the vote.

One can argue the merits of school prayer and other demonstrations of “religious expression” in schools.

What can’t be argued: no amount of “religious expression” in schools will bring a single job to Jacksonville.

Opioid overdose crisis becomes top priority for Jacksonville policy makers

The numbers are stark for those who care about public policy in Jacksonville. And the need for solutions is urgent.

Overdoses, at last count, end four times as many lives as homicides in Duval County, with 2016’s count of 464 casualties more than doubling 2015’s count of 201.

Caucasians represent 86 percent of the deaths, and over half of those passing away are in their 30s and 40s

911 calls for ODs to the Jacksonville Fire and Rescue Department have tripled, with a call every two hours now. Narcan administrations: up 500 percent. JFRD responded to over 3,411 calls in 2016, and the cost of transporting OD victims could near $4.5M this year.

Councilman Bill Gulliford and other city council members were on hand — as was Mayor Lenny Curry.

Curry noted that he “moved some things around to be here,” to address the “tragic epidemic.”

“We take this seriously. We understand that families have suffered because of this. And we have to get it right.”

Councilman Gulliford noted the statistics, including the “131 percent increase” year over year.

The goal of the meeting: to talk awareness, prevention, and solutions, Gulliford noted.

Gulliford noted that extends to his own family. He spent time last weekend talking to his grandchildren about these issues.

“I hope I made an impression on them. I pray I made an impression on them,” the councilman said.

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Richard Preston, a recovered addict, told his “hellacious story” of recovery from drugs and alcohol, using the exhorting style that blended the rolling cadences of an evangelist with the patter of a traveling salesman.

He has been sober for 11 years.

“I know that Jacksonville can be the city against which others are measured in the war against opioids,” Preston, a Jacksonville native said, describing how cocaine and other drugs derailed his promising academic career, then his work life.

“This is our opportunity,” Preston said to the politicians on hand.

“We need to bring hope to those who don’t have hope themselves,” Preston said, before shilling his second memoir about his addiction issues.

____

Jeff and Edie Carlson spoke next; their youngest son is a heroin addict.

Mrs. Carlson attributed the issue to a lack of education on addiction, and the stigma attached, noting that another Mr. Carlson’s brother — a former undercover police officer — died of an overdose.

“The education needs to start with the parents of elementary school students. Middle school may be too late,” Mrs. Carlson said, before describing their son’s struggle with overdose and rehab trips.

During one post-rehab overdose, her son had stopped breathing. Timely arrival of medics kept him alive.

Currently, he is in a 90-day rehab.

_____

Medical Examiner Valerie Rao spoke of the agony of the calls, when parents ask her what she can do, and when she asks if “they believe in God.”

When they say they do, Rao (a religious person) is relieved.

However, the relief is short-lived.

“We have to somehow personalize this. If you start thinking like that, we can come up with solutions. If you don’t,” Rao said, “it’s not going to work.”

Miami-Dade, Seattle, Orlando — all have task forces.

Rao advised that Jacksonville have something similar.

“Everybody’s talking about heroin,” Rao said, “but fentanyl is cheap. Carfentanil is cheap … who ever heard of these drugs? But that’s what the drug dealers are using to cut the heroin.”

The casualties come quick from these lethal cocktails.

“I’m dealing in truth, not fiction. And this is what I deal with every day,” Rao said, noting that unlike in the case of cocaine, when someone can taste the powder and identify anesthetic, there is no analogue for heroin and its variants.

Rao went through recent cases, including ten just today: the common threads are a history of doing drugs and ubiquitous drug paraphenalia in many of the cases.

____

The hope, as advanced by Susan Pitman of Drug Free Duval, is for a sustained community response.

Much of that, said Ron Lendvay of the Jacksonville Sheriff’s Office, revolves around supply interdiction and prevention, via undercover officers infiltrating the communities of users.

Still, the impact builds.

One homicide sergeant had to go to five overdoses in one day recently, and as Rao said, the most corrupted drugs tend to be most deadly.

“The heroin is an organic material … fentanyl is as bad if not worse than heroin,” Lendvay said, noting that Mexican cartels are manufacturing the synthetic cutting agents.

“If anybody hears these speakers and doesn’t think there’s a crisis,” Gulliford said after Lendvay wrapped, “you must have been sleeping.”

____

Audience members had their say, and the disagreements were passionate about the merits of methadone and Nar-Anon, and the limits on treatment for the uninsured.

“Magically,” said one mother, “if you are uninsured, you’re healed in three days.”

Beds at rehab facilities — River Region and Gateway — are filled for months, meanwhile, meaning that the issue for many of those struggling with addiction can’t get help.

Over the course of the meeting, what was generally clear: a sincere desire to somehow stop the epidemic, yet a realization that resources are scarce, and that interdiction of the drugs coming from Mexico has proved daunting.

Perhaps a “great, big, beautiful wall” will stop it.

Perhaps trends themselves will change, as historically has been the case with illicit drug use.

But the reality is that in Jacksonville, as is the case in major and minor cities and hamlets across the country, overstretched local governments have yet to mount a meaningful counter to this epidemic.

In Jacksonville, Thursday evening’s town hall is a start — a step forward on a long journey, one where the finish line is nowhere near being in sight.

John Stemberger’s Jacksonville HRO advocacy raised eyebrows in Jacksonville’s city hall

Though the legislative process for the expansion of Jacksonville Human Rights Ordinance is over, questions have been raised about the unique advocacy role of John Stemberger in the process.

Stemberger, an Orlando attorney and head of “Florida Family Action” who also was just appointed to the Constitutional Revision Commission, registered briefly as a lobbyist on the HRO issue in February 2016.

He let that registration lapse, but he and his political action committee continued in an advocacy role on the issue as it resurfaced in 2017 in Jacksonville, issuing “action alerts” to influence the city council and Jacksonville Mayor Lenny Curry to vote against or veto the issue.

Having failed in the attempt to thwart the HRO, Stemberger’s group is now engaged in a campaign to ensure that Curry is not considered ultimately for the state’s CFO role after Jeff Atwater departs in a matter of months.

Some have raised the question as to whether Stemberger was or was not a lobbyist on the issue.

Jacksonville Ethics Director Carla Miller says that technically, he was within the rules.

“John Stemberger would have to be paid as a lobbyist by his organization to fit the definition.  He is president of his organization–and as such can “lobby” the City without registering,” Miller asserted.

“He can send out mass emails and urge people to contact their council members–this does not fit the definition of a ‘lobbyist’,” Miller added, citing the relevant section of city code (602.801), which holds that because Stemberger was not paid to lobby, and was an officer of his organization, he didn’t have to register.

“Our lobbying laws need to be revised,” Miller added.

General Counsel Jason Gabriel, deferring to Miller on this issue as code requires, noted that “it is interesting that this particular person had previously registered to cover their advocacy.”

We contacted Stemberger’s office Tuesday afternoon with questions on this and a $10,000 payment that Florida Family Action rendered to the Florida Elections Commission in 2014 to resolve a 2009 elections complaint.

As of Wednesday afternoon, we had not heard back.

Jacksonville police union overwhelmingly approves pension deal

Jacksonville is another step closer to long-term peace with its labor unions, as the Fraternal Order of Police resoundingly voted to accept terms of the tentative pension deal on Thursday.

64.5 percent of officers, sergeants, and bailiffs voted for the deal.

81.4 percent of lieutenants and captains accepted terms.

A deal was agreed to on Feb. 11, bringing to a close months of protracted, theatrical negotiations.

The deal offers long-delayed raises to current employees (a 3 percent lump sum payout immediately, and a 20 percent raise for police and fire over three years) and gives all classes of current employees the same benefits.

As well, all police and fire officers will have DROP eligibility with an 8.4 percent annual rate of return and a 3 percent COLA.

The deal, if approved without modification, will bring labor peace through 2027 — though it can be renegotiated by the city or the unions at 3, 6, 9, and 10 years marks in the agreement.

For new employees, however, the plan is historic — a defined contribution plan that vests three years after the new employee for police and fire is hired.

That is one of the first DC plans for public safety employees in the country, and the trade off for the unions are terms that look rich in the private sector.

The total contribution: 35 percent, with the city ponying up 25 percent of that — and making guarantees that survivors’ benefits and disability benefits would be the same for new hires as the current force of safety officers.

The Police and Fire Pension Fund and the Jacksonville City Council have to approve the deal. The PFPF has qualms about the specifics of the deal, and have balked at a Mar. 15 deadline to accept it.

The mayor’s office has vowed to allay the PFPF’s concerns, and it’s hard to imagine the fund bucking the unions.

The city council, meanwhile, likely will move quickly on ratifying the deal.

That deadline is intended to facilitate budget forecasting for the city, a major concern for district council members with wish lists. And Mayor Curry played ball with them on the HRO issue, by not vetoing the bill and letting it become law immediately after passage — risking antipathy from much of his base in the bargain.

The city had rendered optimistic budget projections for a DC plan for new hires last year, but those were predicated on a 10 percent employer contribution.

Since collective bargaining is still ongoing, the city does not have to produce those projections until it wraps. But questions are being raised as to what the ultimate financial impact of pension reform will be on the city, as it struggles with a $2.8 billion unfunded pension liability.

Jax Chamber: Yes to Enterprise Florida

On Thursday, the Jacksonville Chamber sent a message of sorts to the Duval Legislative Delegation.

That message? Ensure that Enterprise Florida, and its job incentive programs, remains whole and functional.

“Jacksonville economic development leaders have worked closely with Enterprise Florida to bring thousands of jobs and billions of dollars in capital investment to our community.  Regardless of the size of your business, economic growth has a huge impact on our city,” said Daniel Davis, JAX Chamber CEO and President.

“Performance-based economic incentives are critical when we fight to bring new jobs to Jacksonville. We believe protecting hard-working taxpayers and improving the incentive process is critical for our state. We are committed to working with state leaders to reach a solution that allows us to remain competitive,” Davis added.

The Chamber’s position is deliberately timed, at the end of a week when Gov. Rick Scott has aggressively counter-messaged those in the Florida House who would scuttle Enterprise Florida.

It also illustrates unique pressures on conservative legislators from bigger cities.

Do they buck the Speaker? Or the Chamber?

The fight over economic incentives is finally, yet firmly, localized.

For Jacksonville leaders like Mayor Lenny Curry, job creation is central to the narrative — and the key to solving difficult quality of life quandaries.

We’ve reached out to the mayor for his take: does he stand with House Speaker Richard Corcoran? Or with local allies, like the Chamber, and Gov. Rick Scott?

Jacksonville PFPF trustees throw cold water on Lenny Curry’s pension deal

On Friday, the Jacksonville Police and Fire Pension Fund held its monthly meeting of trustees.

It was the first such meeting since the city agreed to tentative pension deals with the police and fire unions last weekend.

As part of that deal, the city will no longer be obligated to the terms of the 2015 pension reform agreement, including the extra payments.

Out of the loop in negotiations, it was inevitable that the PFPF Board would raise questions. And they did just that, before and during the meeting.

In sum, the PFPF believes that they had no say in the deal, and that without specifics, they can’t agree to the deal.

They also believe that the deadline to agree to terms by Mar. 15 is unrealistic, given that the deal is still opaque, especially relative to the role of the PFPF board — which was not at the bargaining table.

****

Before the meeting, Trustee Bill Scheu was asked about the deal.

He noted that there’s “no financial information yet,” in terms of the specific financial projections as to what it will cost the city.

Board Chair Richard Tuten expressed similar sentiments, noting that there are no numbers yet on paper that have been produced for the board or the media.

Scheu and Tuten expanded on these positions during the first hour of the meeting.

****

The position of Mayor Lenny Curry has been that such details are “exempt from disclosure” through the collective bargaining process.

However, it should be noted that the city projected real savings from the plan … when the city contribution was expected to be 10 or 12 percent on the defined contribution plan, not 25 percent.

In that context, the numbers are relevant to the discussion.

****

A public commenter kicked the meeting off, saying that he advocated signing the deal immediately, albeit with a waiver to make the 10 percent employee contribution voluntary.

The board disagreed.

Director Tim Johnson noted that the draft agreement cut out those voluntary payments, and advised that there be a workshop to discuss the pension surtax and the supplemental payments from the city, with an eye toward figuring out the board’s rights and role going forward.

Tuten advised that the lawyers be there to review the relevant ordinances, including the extra contributions from the PFPF.

“Until we have long-term numbers from the mayor,” Tuten said, the projections can’t be dealt with.

****

Time is of the essence, said a representative from the city’s office of general counsel.

“The agreements themselves provide for a short window. Everything has to be done by the 15th of March,” said Steve Durden of the OGC.

“The bills have to be introduced by Mar. 31,” Durden added.

Durden framed the deadline, meanwhile, as a device to facilitate the next budget.

As well, “parties just want things done,” Durden added.

That didn’t go over well at the table; the PFPF board asserted that they were dealt out of the negotiations.

****

Board members noted that the PFPF wasn’t a party to the agreement, yet Durden contended that the time frame was not elastic.

“We have no financial information, no nothing,” an exasperated Scheu said.

Durden advised that the “agreements were not done — the proposed agreements — until early last week. It has not been long. And I don’t know if it was appropriate to bring it to your attention.”

The workshop, said Scheu, is about the PFPF authority — not the terms of the deal, which is a different matter entirely.

“The mayor doesn’t want to pay the extra payments. We’re a little reluctant to give that up, now that it’s been codified by a federal court,” Tuten said.

“If the numbers don’t add up,” Tuten added, “it’s going to be a problem.”

Durden noted the board’s internal schedule conflicts precluded them getting together as a board.

“The mayor wants to get that information to you right away … what exactly’s in the deal,” Durden contended.

****

The deal was framed by PFPF Attorney Bob Sugarman as a “momentous decision … equivalent to a merger and acquisition. The numbers are very large, and you’re going to need legal advice, as well as outside advice.”

Requiring focus: the reliability of revenue streams.

“We’ve made promises with share plans, extra contributions … the contracts are a little hazy on what all this means,” Tuten said.

“Are we going to need the mayor’s complete plan? If he doesn’t spell out his numbers, we’re talking to ourselves,” Tuten added.

Tuten framed “what the mayor wants” as “irrelevant.”

“You don’t come and say — just sign it man, no big deal. Our responsibility is to the members, to make sure it’s fiscally sound … the mayor should be presenting a very convincing case at the moment to us … until we get those things from the mayor, there’s no way we can meet March 15.”

“A lack of planning on your part does not mean an emergency on mine,” Tuten said, eliciting laughter from the table.

“We’re going to need you to show us why this is a good deal,” Tuten said, “because you’re not going to be mayor in eight years.”

“Paying extra now doesn’t necessarily cost the city anything,” Tuten said, given the money will come in later.

“They don’t want to skip one year, they want to skip every year,” Tuten explained.

Tuten said they might need two months to figure out the specifics of the deal.

****

Scheu found it “shocking” that the board was being expected to approve a plan without hard numbers.

He also raised questions about whether the future value of the plan could be considered an asset.

Scheu also advised that “the mayor’s office will demean us” as a PR tactic.

“Now he’s likely to demean us for wanting to take our fidicuiary responsibility seriously. I for one think we need to exercise that,” Scheu said.

“We don’t have the power to sue the city,” Scheu said, “without city council approval.”

“The city is our partner here,” Sugarman said, “but we do have procedures we need to go through.”

This is especially true, Sugarman added, with a half a billion dollars on the line.

“Until we get a proposal, I can’t even tell you,” Sugarman said. “If the March 15 deadline is not realistic, that’s not our fault. We did not establish the Mar. 15 deadline. We need to know what we’re talking about.”

“It’s unlikely we’ll be able to do our due diligence in four weeks,” Sugarman said.

Sugarman noted that “each trustee has skin in the game,” and “you can’t buy enough insurance” to protect against personal indemnification if the pension deal doesn’t work out as advertised.

“All we have here is a deal sheet,” Sugarman said, and the real story is in the amendments and the ordinances

In sum, the PFPF believes that they had no say in the deal, and that without specifics, they can’t agree to the deal. They worry about revenue streams, usurped governance authority, and so forth.

There was also talk of enforcing the 2015 agreement in court, if need be.

On Friday afternoon, Mayor Curry offered a statement attempting to cool the tensions expressed in the PFPF Trustees meeting.

“Last weekend,” Curry said, “the Police and Fire union leadership reached a tentative agreement with us that keeps our promises to public safety workers, respects tax payers and is fiscally responsible. The tentative agreement included a timeline that would ensure that we solve this problem in a timely manner. The PFPF Board will have the financial information they need to make a responsible decision prior to their vote.”

Fire Union head Randy Wyse, in the crowd, understood the board’s position.

“I would not want the trustees to breach their fiduciary duty. They need time to make the right decision,” Wyse said.

Jacksonville passes HRO expansion, secures LGBT rights

The skinny: Almost five years after it was first put up for a council vote, Jacksonville’s legislators finally passed an expansion of the city’s Human Rights Ordinance on Tuesday.

The bill passed 12-6, with Councilmen Matt SchellenbergSam Newby, Danny Becton, Bill Gulliford, Doyle Carter, and Al Ferraro in opposition.

The HRO expansion offers long-awaited protections of the city’s LGBT community … if the mayor doesn’t veto it. If the mayor does veto the bill, the council would have to vote to override the measure.

The expansion would add sexual orientation, gender identity, and gender expression to the list of protected categories under the ordinance, which ensures that people aren’t discriminated against in the workplace, the housing market, or public accommodations (restrooms, locker rooms, and so on).

Mayor Lenny Curry returned the bill to the city council without his signature; the bill is now law.

“As your Mayor, I promised to convene community conversations about discrimination. At the conclusion of those conversations, I exercised an executive action to implement a clear policy for City of Jacksonville employees and contractors. I said then and continue to believe additional legislation was unnecessary. But this evening, a supermajority of the City Council decided otherwise. This supermajority, representatives of the people from both parties and every corner of the city, made their will clear,” Curry said in a statement.

“Now, with the issue resolved, I invite City Council and all the people of Jacksonville to join me as we confront serious issues like the final steps of pension reform to bring us financial security and increase our efforts to end the violence and crime hurting innocent people in our city,” Curry added.

Supporters went into the vote confident that the council would pass the bill; however, the amendment process was worth watching, with two amendments (one to remove transgender people from protections, and another to remove the prospect of jail time for those who violate the ordinance).

****

Religious Exemption: As discussion began of the ordinance, the first major talking point was the religious exemption.

General Counsel Jason Gabriel discussed what would make an organization a religious organization, allowing it to be exempt from the legislation.

Gabriel, outlining the potential room for interpretation, noted the ultimate arbiter would be the Jacksonville Human Rights Commission.

****

No Jail: After that, Scott Wilson advanced an amendment striking jail time as a potential penalty for violating the HRO.

That was a concern in one committee.

The amendment was unanimously approved.

****

Referendum redux: Then, a second amendment from Bill Gulliford, to amend the bill and make it effective based on a charter referendum in 2018.

Gulliford had advanced this in committee.

The Beaches Republican noted division in the community on this issue.

“This may go down in flames … but I submit to you a referendum is the only way this issue will end,” Gulliford said, noting that legislation can always be introduced to tweak the bill after passage.

Gulliford asserted, meanwhile, that the idea that civil rights would not have passed referendum was unprovable.

This got a gasp from the crowd, but Gulliford persisted, insisting that opponents of the referendum may be “afraid to trust the people.”

Councilman Brown took the opposing view from Gulliford, urging that a referendum be a state issue.

“I would not have been confident that in 1864,” a referendum would have been passed “that black people should be free,” Brown said, drawing a burst of applause from the crowd.

“Let’s make the hard decision — and let the chips fall where they may,” Brown added.

Councilman Tommy Hazouri, the leading vote recipient in the May 2015 election, noted that he was elected to pass the HRO.

Councilman Al Ferraro saw a difference between the HRO and civil rights legislation, with people potentially losing “freedom of speech.”

“I’m not against anybody who’s gay or transgender or anything like that,” Ferraro said, adding that a “business will go broke because they’re innocent, just because of the financial burden.”

“This is a bad bill because of the way it’s written,” Ferraro added. “I do believe everybody’s equal … [but] the bill is going to harm people.”

“The Chamber is telling us,” Ferraro added, that there would be consequences if the bill doesn’t pass.

Councilman Danny Becton, another expansion opponent, bemoaned council members talking about emails and cards on the issue.

“All that to sway your vote. What is that? It’s a referendum,” Becton said.

The referendum failed 13-5, with Newby, Becton, Gulliford,  Carter, and Ferraro in opposition.

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Closed Companies = Closed Minds?: Becton floated a second amendment, to exempt “closed” companies from this law.

“Anybody who is 100 percent in ownership of their business,” Becton said.

Councilman Hazouri said the Becton amendment would “emasculate” the bill.

Ferraro told Hazouri he didn’t know what it was like to start a business.

“These small business cannot take and afford — the lawsuits are going to go left and right,” Ferraro added.

Councilman Jim Love, a bill sponsor, noted that such lawsuits are not happening in Tampa and Orlando.

“We need to get this done now,” Love said, noting that Tampa Mayor Bob Buckhorn told him that Tampa had an advantage over Jacksonville because of this bill not having passed yet.

The Becton amendment failed 13-5, along the same lines as the previous amendment.

****

No-T Time: Bill Gulliford wasn’t done. He sought a reboot of the compromise bill from 2012, which struck “the transgender issue” from the legislation.

“Why not expand it on feelings? I can feel like I’m 23, and ask people to bake me a cake, and if they don’t do that, I can sue them?”

“Feeling but not fact is a bad way to pursue this,” Gulliford said.

Reggie Brown, who voted against the bill in 2012, spoke as a member of the military.

“We need to take a page out of the military,” Brown said. “[Transgender] people will fight for the flag … some will die for the flag … and that’s just the way it is.”

“When I listen to the recommendations to leave out one particular part of the population,” Brown said, “I’m concerned.”

“If they’re willing to die for you … why would we leave any soldier out?”

The amendment failed 13-5, with the same people on the losing end.

Jacksonville police union advances individual pension contract proposal

On Monday, the city of Jacksonville and the local Fraternal Order of Police continued its collective bargaining efforts, in a five-hour-plus afternoon session that spilled over into the  evening.

Going into the session, the main sticking point was a small but meaningful disagreement on raises for current employees, and whether or not new hires would go into a city defined contribution plan with a 25 percent match or into the FRS’ defined benefit plan.

Complicating the process: Sheriff Mike Williams, who had previously said he wanted a “competitive” package, told us last week that the deal on the table from the city was solid and merited real consideration.

Meanwhile — for those interested in the city’s offer, set to expire before Valentine’s Day — time was of the essence.

But what would Monday hold?

Ultimately, some concessions on issues, detailed below.

And the police union advanced a new proposal: the individual pension contract.

This concept, a departure from the FRS proposal, would require the city to set pension contracts with all union members, and would protect them from the city’s historic penchant for unilaterally changing terms.

That’s the short version; the long form version is below.

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The meeting started with the city side responding to questions and proposals from the union, including on contribution levels, ability to withdraw from the plan, whether the council can vote to approve the deal before the union does, and the impact of a successful legal challenge in the 4th Judicial Circuit against the pension tax referendum in 2016.

CAO Sam Mousa noted that the city’s current offer had to be accepted by Feb. 11, and otherwise is retracted.

$54,000 is the maximum contribution allowable to the plan. Meanwhile, for both police and corrections workers, there are allowable markers for withdrawals from the plan.

For police, as soon as 50 years old under certain conditions, such as 20 years of service; for corrections, 55 years old, under certain conditions, such as 25 years of service.

Mousa also noted, regarding body cameras, that the matter is “not an appropriate subject for collective bargaining,” given the fact that the JSO is developing a policy with union input.

Mousa rejected the police union’s proposal for pay raises of 8 percent for three straight years, while agreeing that all people under the current plan would have the same benefits.

And among other rejections, the union’s desire to have all new hires in FRS’ defined benefit plan.

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Mousa then presented revised proposals from the city.

Among them: a clarification that a 3 percent COLA would apply to survivor benefits.

Mousa also reiterated the seven year term of collective bargaining he had proposed previously, noting that was renewable at three, six, and seven years.

CFO Mike Weinstein, meanwhile, struck at the heart of the 2015 agreement with his comments that the city would no longer pay the accelerated payment schedule that agreement mandated, once a new plan is in place.

The reasoning: that plan was a “placeholder” until a “sustainable funding source” was located.

All chapter funds would revert to the custody of the police and fire pension fund.

Meanwhile, those who have DROP’d and retired since 2015 would be “made whole, as if they had never left the plan.”

Mousa also noted that the defined contribution plans for new hires would have a third party manager, and that all bargaining agreements must be approved by the city council.

As well, the baseline contribution for the long-term annuity proposed last time these parties met would be 10 percent.

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Spoiler alert: the union didn’t agree to these terms out of hand.

The union pushed back on the city’s contention that body cameras are not a mandatory subject of collective bargaining; the city contended that cameras are a “management right,” and that these wouldn’t be bargained during this session.

“But that doesn’t necessarily mean we’re not going to talk about it,” Michael Mattimore, the city’s chief negotiator, said.

“Right now, we have no interest in bargaining … but we’re going to make a commitment to bargaining in the future,” Mattimore said.

“We all know the sheriff wants these cameras out in April,” FOP Head Steve Zona said.

Zona’s offer was shot down by Mousa, in terms of collectively bargaining on cameras “today.”

Regarding chapter funds, the union wanted 14 percent of them allocated to a share plan. The accounts, said Zona, potentially contain $90 million currently.

Weinstein suggested that a set date was needed for this, and that should be the date of implementation.

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Zona, two hours into the meeting, noted that Mayor Lenny Curry messages around the theme of “promises made, promises kept.”

Curry hit every roll call of officers recently, and told the force (per First VP Randy Reeves) that “if I could find a legal way to secure your benefits today, I would sign it today.”

Mousa noted that he wasn’t at these roll calls.

When asked if the mayor could be called, Mousa said “we’d rather just look at your proposal, Steve.”

“Makes no damn difference what the mayor said or didn’t say. Makes no difference. Let’s see your proposal,” Mousa said.

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From there, the FOP proposal: defined contribution retirement plans.

While these would be defined contribution, they would not be changeable, and would have an

Voluntary contracts with employees for pensions, which are used in Tampa and Miami Beach, and do not allow for unilateral change of terms.

The vesting schedule was changed, to be 100 percent after three years, with half the vesting in the first year.

The city would also offer meetings between the officers and financial advisers, during the first year of training, and at 10 and 20 year intervals.

Meanwhile, the union would accept the current wage proposal on the table, adding up to 20 percent over three years, with a three percent lump sum.

Mousa questioned the legality of these contracts, relative to the city of Jacksonville.

The research would take time. And legal guidance from the FOP’s attorney.

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The accelerated vesting schedule was a sticking point for Mousa.

“You were worried that a DC plan would have employees take the money and leave. This seems contrary to what you’re saying,” Mousa said.

Mousa then agreed to the vesting schedule, after hearing Zona say that “positions change.”

“This has been in practice for decades,” Zona said, referring to Tampa and Miami Beach, who have these plans.

Mousa’s stated concern: the legality of the plan.

“Until we have ample opportunity to review this proposal,” Mousa said, “this is not on the table today.”

“You have a three year window,” Mousa added, to renegotiate the plan after accepting the city’s terms.

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 The union attorney produced a number of cases that spoke to the legality of these individual pension contracts.

The model the union seeks: a simple, one-page contract, that would tie benefits in for the term of employment.

Mousa bristled against this line of discussion, including fixed benefits for the entire term of employment.

Zona, meanwhile, said “we came here today to get a deal done.”

“We’re the only union in the city with employees in all three funds. Take the time to vet [the deal],” Zona said.

Mousa noted that the city had provided a “decent wage proposal.”

“Whether we make a deal or not, life goes on. We’re going to make our budget. Life is good,” Mousa said.

“The mayor has proposed to make your benefits whole. Your members deserve a wage increase,” Mousa added, noting that it is in the union’s interest not to let this opportunity “slip by.”

General Counsel Jason Gabriel noted that these plans may not fit Jacksonville.

And “even if it were legal, it might be a terrible idea. Last time we had a 30 year contract, it was thrown out by a judge.”

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Corrections officers, and their plight, were also discussed.

There are severe worries about attrition, and other counties are paying their corrections officers more.

The proposed solution: salary parity, to resolve what the union sees as a 20 year problem, with correctional salaries lagging behind patrol.

The disparity can be as much as 36 percent.

To this end, “baby steps” on a “pathway to parity” were proposed.

Among them: a 25 percent raise, phased in over three years.

The city’s offer would cost the city $12.7 million more; the FOP counteroffer would be $2.765 more than the city’s, approaching $15.5 million.

Mousa’s take: to reopen the discussion in the first year of a new agreement.

“We acknowledge the problem. And we’re going to have to fix it,” Mousa said, with a “new compensation package that we would present to corrections.”

The time frame for that: after Oct. 1, 2017, when the new budget will have gone into effect.

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The union advanced another proposal: extending the term of the agreement to 10 years, contingent on an average 2 percent increase in the sales tax collections, and satisfying the “gross amount” of the assumed rate of return.

Zona also noted the city’s tendency to roll back its millage rate, and said that if the city cuts taxes, it “artificially” stunted the growth of the fund.

The city agreed to the 10 year term (renewable at 3, 6, 9, and 10 years).

And the city agreed to the terms on sales tax and rate of return on the pension fund.

Regarding millage, the goal would be 2.5 percent growth on the ad valorem, with a year taken out if a millage reduction kept the revenue stream from hitting its target.

****

All of this said, the difference boils down to the city insisting upon its deal, and the union wanting its latest proposal considered.

This discussion will resume in the near future.

One resolved point: the union rejected the annuity proposal out of hand.

Amended HRO expansion bill clears first Jacksonville City Council committee

Monday morning saw the first of three Jacksonville City Council committees approve the latest attempt to expand the Human Rights Ordinance.

The vote was 4-2.

The measure would extend protections in housing, public accommodations, and employment on the grounds of sexual orientation, gender identity, and gender expression.

As well, the bill offered in its original form carve out employment protections for businesses with fewer than 15 employees, and for owners of owner-operated rental homes and four unit buildings.

As you will read below, an amendment was passed allowing such protections for businesses with fewer than 50 employees … a measure which speaks to a fragmentation in the process.

The bill also exempts some religious organizations such as churches, synagogues, mosques, religious schools, and affiliated non-profits.

Despite the attempt to produce a clean bill, there were questions even before discussion started.

The agenda for the meeting of the Monday Morning Neighborhoods, Community Investments, and Services committee noted that the “legislation is brief” and that “thorough discussion” was recommended in committee.

Thorough discussion happened — though the bulk of it dealt with a substitute bill advanced by Councilman Bill Gulliford, drafted in the hours before the meeting.

The substitute ultimately failed, with just two votes in support after a lot of discussion.

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Gulliford’s sub included changes such as “gender identity” to “transgender identity.”

“One of the big problems,” Gulliford said, is “the number of different gender identities out there.”

Religious organizations would become a “broader” definition, Gulliford said, including such as homeless shelters.

“What I’m attempting to do,” Gulliford said, “is to make it as acceptable to all parties as possible … a serious attempt to try to end up in a place where both sides may feel a little better about it.”

“The big issues are the bathroom issue, the religious liberty issue, and the impact to small businesses,” Gulliford said.

Gulliford also referred to a letter of opposition from the Diocese of St. Augustine, which invoked the principle of “conscientious objection” to laws perceived to be unjust.

Among the features of the bill: a person being exempted from the bill if he or she is acting in accordance with a religious belief, including a belief that marriage is between one man and one woman — a provision that runs counter to federal anti-discrimination laws.

Council VP John Crescimbeni wondered if this substitute conflicted with Florida Statute, federal or state law.

The office of general counsel had no answer.

Council President Lori Boyer noted that the substitute bill would require a re-referral.

Councilman Greg Anderson took issue with Gulliford coining a term “transgender identity,” which Gulliford said was a “way to avoid a lot of argument” and “be more definitive.”

“I’ve done a lot of research on this. I’ve never seen it before,” Anderson noted.

Councilman Tommy Hazouri noted the conflict between Gulliford’s substitute and federal law.

Councilman Jim Love, a bill co-sponsor, noted also that worries of lawsuits and assaults — a specter raised by HRO expansion opponents — did not come to pass in Tampa, a city to which Jacksonville is losing jobs and economic opportunity.

As did many of his colleagues, Love opposed the bill substitute.

Love also noted that 50 percent of the state was protected by legislation barring discrimination on sexual orientation and gender identity grounds.

***

Responding to the substitute, bill sponsor Aaron Bowman noted that there were 30,000 service officers in Jacksonville, with 85 percent required to live outside the gates because of a lack of housing.

“A portion” of that group is divested of rights once off their base, Bowman said, especially given the military offering protections to the LGBT community.

Bowman also noted that, out of the emails he’d received on the subject, he found that out of over 3,000 emails, 2,768 support the legislation.

“That’s a 10 to 1 ratio,” Bowman said, adding later that in other cities, “the world hasn’t stopped” because of this legislation.

Councilman Tommy Hazouri, another bill sponsor, noted his contention that the council has a duty to move the bill through committees and vote on it next week.

***

Gulliford had his say, of course, and stood by his substitute.

Councilman Garrett Dennis, meanwhile, asserted that the current bill is just “words on paper” because the aggrieved party “has nowhere to go to report, to complain” for relief.

The general counsel’s office described recourse, through the Jacksonville Human Rights Commission, which includes “conciliation” between the parties and a potential cause finding that could assert grounds for actionable grievance.

Among the potential penalties: a $500 fine and a 90 day jail stretch.

Dennis noted that the director position, which would be necessary for enforcement, is currently unfunded; he has a bill (2016-35) to rectify that.

“This bill doesn’t go far enough in protecting who we already have and who we’re trying to add,” Dennis said.

Notable: the vast majority of complaints the JHRC hears are employment complaints related to medium-sized businesses, with 1 percent of them driven by public accommodations such as bathrooms.

Some complaints are filed by “frequent fliers,” described by JHRC Director Charlene Taylor-Hill as people who complain repeatedly.

In other jurisdictions, said the JHRC director, the addition of SOGI protections has not led to the need for additional staff.

Councilman Doyle Carter noted that the extended process of inquiry hurts the “little guy, who does not have the resources” for a lengthy JHRC investigation.

However, that burden exists now.

****

Councilman Gulliford, feeling a loss coming on, got fired up.

Gulliford noted that in Houston, legislation was repealed by citizen referendum.

“You have to anticipate the worst of situations that may arise,” Gulliford said, noting that liberties are being granted to one group at the expense of another.

Councilman Hazouri said “this is not a bathroom bill like it was in Houston,” noting that the Jacksonville Sheriff’s Office agreed with him.

“This bill is voted on on Valentine’s Day. Will it be Happy Valentine’s Day or a Valentine’s Day Massacre?”

****

The Gulliford substitute was dispatched, but amendments were offered to chip away at the bill.

One amendment: to increase the number of employees a small business could have for purposes of exemption from the sexual orientation/gender identity provisions to 50, which contravenes federal statute from the EEOCleaving the city exposed to litigation.

That amendment passed 4-2, with Garrett Dennis joining Doyle Carter, Bill Gulliford, and Joyce Morgan in support.

Council VP John Crescimbeni thundered that “this creates a two-tier system,” allowing discrimination against LGBT people that would be otherwise barred by the bill.

“That’s insane,” Crescimbeni said.

Hazouri said “we have to be consistent with what we do, just like we have to be consistent with what our sexuality is.”

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From there, discussion moved toward the meta-discourse realm, with Councilman Dennis wanting to know how the city can “regulate a private business.”

“How in the world do we regulate it here in this city,” Dennis said.

Gulliford voiced his opposition to the measure again, calling it “onerous” toward those who oppose these “burdens of laws,” with potential for “frivolous enforcement” due to the malleability of the “gray area of proof.”

Despite those caveats, the bill passed 4-2. And Dennis supported it.

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Speaking after the meeting, Councilman Dennis discussed his thought process on the bill, including backing the amendment that seems to create tiers of permissible discrimination.

“I spoke to a few business owners,” Dennis said, and “their sweet spot is around 50” employees.

Dennis believes that protections should be “consistent across the board,” and suggested that maybe he “misunderstood” the amendment he voted for.

Dennis is also coy about where he stands on the bill.

“No one has gotten a yes or no out of me,” Dennis said. “I still have a couple of days to figure out” a position.

Dennis suggested that one way forward may to be raise the threshold of actionable discrimination to companies with 50 employees across the board, which means that the full human rights ordinance — and not just the proposed addition — would be out of compliance with EEOC guidelines.

However, “the LGBT plight is totally different” from the experience of African-Americans, Dennis added.

The next committee stop for this bill: Rules on Tuesday afternoon.

 The chair: Garrett Dennis.

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