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Lenny Curry frames pension-reform push as ‘new beginning for Jacksonville’

After weeks of speculation as to hard costs and real benefits of the Lenny Curry approach to Jacksonville’s pension reform, the first-term Republican Mayor talked it out with the Jacksonville City Council Wednesday afternoon.

The Curry administration feels the fierce urgency of now. With pension costs, already $290M in the current fiscal year, slated to be $345M next FY if reforms aren’t implemented, the model of reamortizing the old debt and opening new plans for new hires is a matter of existential importance.

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Three of the 14 filed bills, which could be voted on later this month, are probably the most important: 2017-257 creates a new ordinance section:  Chapter 776 (Pension Liability Surtax).

Bill 2017-258 affects the general employees and correctional worker plans, closing the extant defined benefit plans to those hired after Oct. 1, 2017, and committing the city to a 12 percent contribution for those general employees and a 25 percent contribution for correctional officers hired after October.

Bill 2017-259 implements revisions to the Police and Fire & Rescue plans.

258 and 259 both offer fixed costs via a defined contribution plan for new hires, while offering generous contributions from the city to those hires, and raises for all current employees.

The best deals are for public safety: 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.

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

The Curry model, rooted in a deferred contribution approach that increases a re-amortized liability and spreads out costs to hit hardest when the sales tax extension money starts coming in after 2030, is intended to provide fixed costs and certainty for budgets.

However, with questions raised over costs over time (and Curry’s response to those critics being to “let them chirp“), Thursday’s presentation would end up being notable.

Would the mayor sell the City Council on the deal, giving them relief for local priorities in exchange for a longer-term amortization? And what about the press corps?

Those questions loomed Thursday.

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Curry kicked off the four-hour session with some opening remarks, noting that he would be distributing slides, one at a time, throughout his remarks.

The mayor noted that, when sworn in, he discussed the finite nature of time, and that he committed to a “sense of urgency” on key issues.

“We are poised to solve one of our city’s biggest challenges … a challenge that my predecessor handed off to a task force .. with a solution that would barely make a dent,” Curry said, also calling out critics of the current plan, whose plans would “make things worse.”

Curry vowed that his solution would free up resources for public safety, zeroing out the $2.8B liability with a dedicated income source.

“The legislation and policy before you … mark a new beginning for the financial health of Jacksonville,” Curry said.

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The “locked-in revenue source,” Curry said, is explicitly earmarked for pension relief, ending the “legacy pensions … bankrupting cities throughout the united states.”

“There are costs associated with paying off $3B of debt we didn’t create,” Curry said, but previous generations created the issue that he has to fix with “sound financial principles.”

Those costs include long-delayed pay raises for current employees.

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Among the benefits of the Curry plans: liquidity floors and contribution floors, which establish meaningful parameters for debt paydown.

“Future revenue growth will now be able to fund public safety,” Curry said.

The mayor also addressed tax growth, saying — as he told us — that the mechanism was based on averages in the current market, and would be subject to review yearly.

“The risk does not exist,” Curry said.

Curry outlined pension costs increasing: next year would be $59M over $290M this year, which is “eating our revenue alive.”

“Without pension reform, a $40,000 annual salary will costs $87,000. With it, it will cost $57,000,” Curry said, with pension costs thrown in.

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Curry discussed the path forward with local media after his remarks.

He stressed that, while costs are associated with retiring the $3B debt that his team “inherited,” this is ultimately a path to solving a problem previously neglected.

As well, the half-penny tax, though it doesn’t kick in on this obligation until next decade, is a future asset — offering actuarial certainty that frees up finite general fund resources.

Curry revised a previous actuarial assumption that the obligation could be paid off by 2045, noting that 2049-2051 was more likely.

“I know it will work. I’ve been fighting for this since the day I got into office,” the mayor said.

When asked to predict the vote count, he didn’t offer a number — but an assurance.

“We’re going to get this done,” Curry said.

Lenny Curry to pension plan critics: ‘Let them chirp’

A case could be made that Jacksonville Mayor Lenny Curry has lost control of the pension reform narrative at the worst possible time.

In recent days, both the Florida Times-Union and FloridaPolitics.com have run stories questioning the lack of substantive detail provided by the mayor’s office regarding the pension reform package introduced last week to the Jacksonville City Council.

Curry has promised a transparent disclosure of numbers — and real financial savings — at a workshop with the Jacksonville City Council on Thursday.

At least one third-party analysis, meanwhile, says the increased contribution levels to retirement plans of new hires, from 12 percent in the 2015 pension reform agreement to 25 percent in the current iteration, will lead to $662M of extra costs from 2017 to 2031.

With that in mind, we asked the mayor on Tuesday about his confidence in the pension reform package.

Short version: he stood his ground against the critics, saying to “let them chirp.”

The long version is below.

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Curry, in describing the “numbers that will be laid out before the City Council on Thursday,” noted that what will be presented is a “sustainable solution pension reform that puts this to bed once and for all.”

“People,” said Curry, “have been debating this for years. Without the ability to move forward and get something done.”

“I put forth a reform plan that traveled a long road to get here, from the House and the Senate, the Governor. City Council passed a resolution that unanimously supported it. The voters said yes — 65 percent of them. We collectively bargained with the unions and we’re now here with a secure source of revenue, dedicated to solving this problem.”

That source of revenue: a half-cent sales tax extension that kicks in no later than 2030, when the Better Jacksonville Plan obligation is finally paid off, which will facilitate a goal of the mayor’s: “getting us out of the pension business.”

“This is a comprehensive solution. I’m confident we’re going to get this done. And let the critics keep chirping.”

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One of the caution flags flown by those chirping critics: what is seen as an overly optimistic read on anticipated inflow of money from the tax extension.

The Curry Administration expects a 4 percent increase per annum. External critics are more bearish.

“All these people who are criticizing this and debating this — what’s their source of revenue? Long before I got into office, they had the opportunity to present a solution,” Curry said.

“They either didn’t present it, didn’t know how to present it, didn’t get it done. So we’re here with a secure source of revenue — the half-penny — that has historically, except for the recession, grown at well over 5 percent.”

“A very important distinction between the Better Jacksonville Plan and this plan is, when they set their growth assumption rate, they borrowed a billion and a half dollars against it. They had to meet that growth rate to meet that obligation,” Curry said.

“Our sales tax growth rate: we’re not borrowing against it. So it’s adjusted every year in an actuarial analysis and the pension payments will reflect whatever the reality of the situation is,” Curry added.

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When asked about another criticism: that the city would be on the hook for a 25 percent annual contribution for new hires under the defined contribution plan, up from 12 percent in the 2015 pension reform deal, Curry likewise stood his ground.

“Right now, we spend 119 percent of retirement costs for every single person we hire,” Curry said. “Not even close to what we’re going to put into the defined contribution plans.”

“Not to mention that guaranteed pensions aren’t predictable. Certainly there’s actuarial analyses and whatnot that goes into it, but we are facing unfunded liabilities and crushing pension costs.”

“Defined contribution plans are cost certain. We know exactly where we’re headed, we can predict it, we can manage it. And we’ll solve the problem once and for all.”

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The Curry administration will make its case to the City Council on Thursday afternoon.

Encore performance: Rick Scott messages economic incentives in Jacksonville

When it comes to Gov. Rick Scott and Northeast Florida, is there such a thing as too much of a good thing?

For the fourth time since the beginning of March, Gov. Scott was in Jacksonville Tuesday, as Scott held another “business roundtable” with Mayor Lenny Curry and other Jacksonville notables, including former mayor and UNF President John Delaney, at Florida State College Jacksonville’s downtown campus.

Incentives, Scott said, can’t just be done on the county or city level … a new talking point this trip.

Scott discussed Visit Florida.

“We can quantify that every 76 tourists equals one job. I want all the jobs,” Scott said.

New on this trip: Gov. Scott noting that he’d “love to work with Puerto Rico” as it works to rebuild his economy, noting that he also seeks “win-win” relationships, such as in the trade trip to Argentina later this month.

With the end of the Quick Action Closing Fund, Scott’s message has a particular urgency; as he has noted in previous visits to Jacksonville, those deals the fund facilitated are drying up now, without the resources to make that final sale.

Also as in previous visits, Scott encouraged locals to call the legislators who voted against incentives — five of them locals  — and asked why they voted against jobs.

Curry said “this is important to Jacksonville — a big issue.”

Curry endorsed Scott’s job agenda, noting that “for many of the companies [that came here] … a big part of that was incentives.”

“Economic freedom and jobs are actually [among] the most powerful things in history,” Curry noted.

Delaney, leaving UNF next year, recycled a quote from former Mayor Jake Godbold regarding incentives.

“If I stood on the corner and handed you a dollar, and you handed me $10 back, I’d take that deal all day long,” Delaney said.

DEO Director Cissy Proctor touted incentives as well.

“It takes this type of partnership … to continue to fight for the jobs,” Proctor said, discussing the importance of economic incentives to the governor’s strategy.

Jerry Mallot noted that Deutsche Bank and GE came to Jacksonville after a “serious competition.”

While the right workforce, talent, and environment are key, the “final competition” with other states comes down to incentives.

In the case of Deutsche Bank, other projects and expansions followed.

In the case of GE, Jacksonville was “woefully short” of other offers — the governor made the case to the CEO, and that, coupled with “closing the gap” of almost $15M, was dispositive.

“We lost it in the middle,” Mallot said, “and we won it back.”

“We’re fighting tooth and nail,” Mallot said, and “without the tools to do it, we’re sunk.”

“We have to win this fight,” Mallot added.

Hemming Park money clears first Jacksonville council panel

The rappers Whodini posed the question way back: “Friends … how many of us have them?”

When it comes to a downtown Jacksonville plaza, the once-controversial Friends of Hemming Park look poised to get a six-month extension to its contract — and some money for material improvements to the “front door to city hall” — after a Monday Jacksonville City Council committee meeting.

Movement in the Friends of Hemming Park saga was foreshadowed earlier this year, with Mayor Lenny Curry asserting that he’s willing to fork over $415,000 to the current management to run the park for six more months. $240,000 for operations, the rest for hardscaping and landscaping (work to be contracted out and completed by the end of FY 17).

The work to be contracted will be done on a reimbursement basis.

This bill started off in Neighborhoods, Community Investments, and Services on Monday morning.

NCIS had pilloried the previous management of FOHP for wasteful spending in the past; however, hot quotes were absent from Council Chambers on Monday morning.

Councilman Bill Gulliford did note that the planters in the park are “ugly,” suggesting a group of senior citizen volunteers could remedy the issue.

Apparently, annuals won’t work in the park; FOHP head Bill Prescott noted that more native plants will be part of the landscape going forward.

Finance mulls this measure on Wednesday morning.

Friends with benefits: Committee week for Jacksonville City Council

Friendship on the installment plan. Golf carts at the county line.

A date with Joe Camel? You’d better be 21.

A “bully” on a commission. A gag rule for the public. And incentives for the donor class.

These are just a few of the concepts and bills the Jacksonville City Council mulls in committees this week.

Friends with benefits: Movement in the Friends of Hemming Park saga was foreshadowed earlier this year, with Mayor Lenny Curry asserting that he’s willing to fork over $415,000 to the current management to run the park for six more months. $240,000 for operations, the rest for hardscaping and landscaping (work to be contracted out and completed by the end of FY 17).

This bill starts off in Neighborhoods, Community Investments, and Services on Monday morning. Then Finance on Wednesday morning.

Golf carts in Nocatee: NCIS considers a measure (2017-66) to make Nocatee a “golf cart community.” Drivers would have to be 16 and older. They could drive golf carts in the public right of way during daylight hours, provided the carts are equipped with lights, turn signals, and other accouterments that make them street legal.

This bill was deferred four weeks as certain components were worked out, including the addition of “low-speed vehicles” and alignment of Duval ordinance with that in St. Johns County, which is also blessed to house part of Nocatee.

If it passes NCIS, the bill goes to Public Health and Safety (PHS), followed by Transportation, Energy, and Utilities (TEU)

Absence makes the heart grow fonder: It’s hard to find time to do all the things you want to do in a day. Sometimes you just need a little more schedule flexibility.

Many people aren’t in position to request that. But many people aren’t Tom Petway, a Jacksonville donor class all-star who also sits atop the JEA board of directors.

For proof, check out the justification of 2016-764, which TEU mulls Monday, before the Rules Committee takes it up Tuesday.

“At a Rules Special Meeting, JEA’s Chairman of the Board, Tom Petway, requested that the City Council amend the City’s charter to enable the JEA’s Board to meet every other month instead of the monthly basis that it currently meets.  He explained that monthly meetings were particularly hard on JEA staff. Mr. Petway explained that the JEA Board wanted to have a meeting requirement similar to that of the Port Authority.”

Some language to be added: “JEA may meet at such times and places designated by it but shall hold regular meetings as necessary, and generally once a month.”

Tobacco Road: Jacksonville’s not going to be Marlboro Country for the under-21 set, if John Crescimbeni has anything to say about it.

2017-211 would offer a resolution of support for Florida Legislature bills to prevent the sale of tobacco to those under 21.

While the future of those bills in Tallahassee is in flux, Crescimbeni would like to see a local ban on sales of tobacco to those under 21.

The councilman is also drafting a bill that could impose a local ban on tobacco sales to those under 18, though there are still issues to be resolved with that bill, regarding questions of local ordinance potentially conflicting with the state, and other home rule questions.

Whether with the bill he filed, or the bill he’s yet to file, it’s clear that Crescimbeni is determined to raise the age of legal tobacco sales to young people. As he continues to lead in the pledge count for the Jacksonville City Council president’s race, this issue is worth watching for both policy and political reasons.

Anania Agonistes: For those looking for a showdown in a committee, get your popcorn ready for Rules on Tuesday.

2017-76, the consideration of appointing former Jacksonville City Council candidate Mike Anania to be appointed to the Taxation, Utilization of Revenues, and Expenditures Committee, promises to be a hot mess.

How hot? Let’s ask Rules Chair Garrett Dennis.

“When I met with him, he was very combative. I explained the process to him and he basically said ‘regardless of the process, because of the people backing him, he was going to be on the TRUE Commission,” Dennis said.

“[Anania’s] someone who came in, basically being a bully,” Dennis said, regarding a meeting in his council office.

Dennis urged Anania to ask himself a question: “Is it worth it to continue this fight, to split the council? Or do I love Jacksonville and the process enough to step back, to say ‘I’m going to put my selfish ambitions to the side and step aside’.”

Rules voted on Anania twice already, moving him through both times.

But Dennis put the brakes on the council floor vote.

Now Rules and Finance (on Wednesday) have to approve the irascible Arlington Republican.

Silence is Golden: Public commenters will have to learn their elevator pitches.

The Jacksonville City Council mulls allowing a committee chair or council president to truncate speaking time from three minutes to a lesser interval (2017-160).

The Rules Committee punted on this one two weeks back, after robust semantic discussion. It will be in front of Rules Tuesday.

Money Changes Everything: Also on the Rules agenda: a resolution supporting Enterprise Florida.

Gov. Rick Scott has made the hard sell of his incentive programs in Jacksonville in recent weeks, and Councilmen Aaron Bowman, Tommy Hazouri, and Jim Love all support the resolution.

Finance also hears this bill.

Will Lenny Curry’s pension reform save Jacksonville money?

Jacksonville’s long road toward the latest round of pension reform – the Lenny Curry edition – is finally entering the home stretch this week.

While last week saw the introduction of 14 total bills related to the various agreements struck with the city’s bargaining units after months of negotiations, this week sees council attempting to come to terms with the specifics of the Curry proposal.

The mayor’s office has been very slow to offer specifics, having what the mayor and numerous council members describe as big-picture, conceptual meetings, while Team Curry promises to roll out numbers at a Thursday workshop

While the councilors support the reform measures in theory, in practice those reform measures may be more complicated – and expensive to the city – according to one external analysis.

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Tad Delegal, who served as a counselor to Jacksonville’s Fraternal Order of Police for 14 years, did a deep dive into the numbers for police and fire unions – and his work claims that the Curry plan will cost the city an additional $662M from 2017 to 2031.

Delegal’s numbers are based on certain assumptions, including a 25 percent pension cost for new employees (and a 25.9 percent cost for current ones), and a 3 percent growth in payroll costs per annum.

However, his analysis asserts that the mayor’s plan will cost the city $20M more in pension costs in FY17, with a gradual increase to over $62M by FY31.

In a roughly $1.1B operating budget, those are big hits. And Delegal isn’t even factoring in general employees.

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Those numbers differ from the more optimistic analysis put forth by Milliman in 2016.

That analysis, based on a 10 percent city contribution rather than the 25 percent contribution, created room for the city to move.

By FY 19, that number expanded to $57 million of saving, setting off a number of fiscal years with projected savings ranging from $55 million to $68 million.

The bullish trend in the 2016 projections slowed in the FY 28 to 34 period, with savings in the $40 million to $50 million range.

In FY 35, the trend reversed, with increased city spending on the liability, ranging from $14 to $31 million for the rest of the decade.

Then, said the 2016 projections, the big hit comes: FY 40 and 41 see increased city spending on the plan of $91 and $97 million respectively. Then, $127 million in FY 42, setting off a series of balloon payments that potentially extend from $230 million in FY 43 to $381 million of increased obligation in FY 48.

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Delegal, who is not a CPA, asserted that he was “concerned with the lack of financial analysis accompanying Mayor Curry’s pension plan, especially since it represents such an enormous change in the way that a substantial portion of our City’s finances are administered.”

With that in mind, he took a stab at it.

“The real savings with the 2015 plan comes in the future, and adding increasingly more employees at the 12% rather than at 25.9% will result in an eventual decrease in pension costs, even with expected payroll increases.  The Mayor’s plan would prevent the savings that would have accompanied the move from 25.9% (25% for post-2017 employees) to 12% of payroll.  The Mayor proposes to pay these new employees with a 401k-style benefit that costs 25% of payroll,” Delegal notes.

That, Delegal asserts, “effectively eliminates the savings that the 2015 reforms created.   Those employees will comprise an increasing percentage of the police and fire workforce, and while continuation of the 2015 plan would have created a substantial savings over the next fifteen years (and into the future), Mayor Curry’s plan will result in a net increase in pension costs over time.”

Delegal also asserts that “Additionally, the 2015 plan created substantial cost savings through reduction in benefits for other employees, especially those who had fewer than ten years of service as of 2015 … The 2015 reforms made revisions to not only the pensions of persons hired after 2015, but also those who were already hired before that date.”

“The task force predicted that the changes would decrease the City’s liability for these employees by about 7% of payroll for that group of employees. Assuming that these employees are compensated at the average salary, Mayor Curry’s plan will therefore increase the costs of their future benefits by approximately 7% of payroll, or approximately $4.3 million a year,” Delegal continued.

Delegal also contends that more costs that could have been avoided will emerge.

“It is unclear how much money the Mayor plans to save in the annual budget as a result of delaying the contributions to the unfunded liability.   In order to justify the much higher annual payroll and pension costs listed on the attached spreadsheet, Mayor Curry will have to reduce the unfunded liability payments by a much greater annual amount than is required under the ordinance,” Delegal argues.

“It is unclear how much Mayor Curry’s plan would decrease the unfunded liability payments between now and 2031, but the reduction in payments will result in a higher unfunded liability than would exist had regular payments been made, and had the funds been permitted to gain value over time through investment.  If the Mayor plans to refrain from paying $100 Million each year until 2013, the total amount of “interest” (earnings that would have been made on those payments at 7% return) would total approximately $470 Million by 2031,” Delegal notes.

Consistent with the heads of the police and fire unions, Delegal expects impacts from workforce attrition among public safety.

“The Mayor’s plan uses a very high contribution rate of 25% of payroll, along with extremely high raises in an attempt to counteract the turnover effects that have been experienced by the other places that have used 401k-type systems for public safety officers.  His use of the high dollar benefits could cause employees to stay, but the fact that their retirements will be portable could also spur them to leave the very demanding, high pressure jobs after five years of vesting.  If the plan results in higher turnover after five years, Jacksonville will have no choice but to further increase pay and benefits, which will be quite expensive,” Delegal contends.

Additionally, an inevitable economic downturn will leave Jacksonville exposed, Delegal claims.

“In future downturns, the implementation of a 401k-type system will force the City to be much more attentive to the market, and will require it to increase salaries and benefits more quickly during any recovery.

Delegal’s analysis is restricted to the police and fire plans, as well, necessarily leaving out general employees.

Meanwhile, he posed a number of questions for council.

Among them: the cost of restoring benefits for all of those under the current defined benefit plan to 2015 levels; the cost of administration and disability benefits under the plan; the cost of the 3 percent bonus, and the phased in 20 percent raise over three years; the rationale for an assumed 4.25 percent annual growth in surtax revenue; impacts of losing $75 million scheduled to be paid into the pension fund, per the 2015 agreement.

This outlet has asked Curry and his team for tangible projections for weeks, if not months, but delivery has proven elusive.

While collective bargaining was going on, the administration didn’t want to disclose the data, because it was subject to collective bargaining.

But with the bargaining process wrapped, the administration still isn’t rolling out numbers for public consumption, deferring to the workshop slated for Apr. 6.

“In the weeks ahead, in a big, public, transparent workshop,” Curry told us on Tuesday, “we’ll be laying all of this out.”

“I would remind you that all of the collective bargaining, all of the agreements that have been reached, were done in the sunshine — transparent for the public to see.”

That workshop, slated for Apr. 6, will “lay out the budget impact and the actuarial impact … everything that council needs to make a decision will be laid out for them publicly and you’ll all have that information available for you,” he told the press Tuesday.

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Legislation introduced Tuesday came without any data beyond the actual bill.

Ordinance 2017-257, which would levy (no later than 2031) the 1/2 cent discretionary sales tax approved by voters via referendum in August, and which creates a new ordinance section:  Chapter 776 (Pension Liability Surtax), had a fragmentary description on the legislative fact sheet.

“This ordinance is required by law to implement the Pension Liability Surtax.”

Bill 2017-258 affects the general employees and correctional worker plans. Bill 2017-259 implements revisions to the Police and Fire & Rescue plans.

The bills would close the extant defined benefit plans to those hired after Oct. 1, 2017, and committing the city to a 12 percent contribution for those general employees and a 25 percent contribution for correctional officers hired after October.

The bills impose a “ten-year agreement,” of sorts, able to be revisited on a bilateral basis three years, six years, and nine years after implementation.

The fact sheet, again, is a sad pastiche: “This ordinance implements the changes pursuant to collective bargaining” is all it says, leaving aside the usual detail one expects from such documents.

While Delegal’s analysis is not the final word on the matter, it is given more weight than it might be otherwise, were the Curry administration forthcoming about the projections.

In this context, a release of financial projections – perhaps ahead of the Thursday workshop – would offer a meaningful counter to a narrative that suggests that the city is in for some years of austerity – even after the so-called “pension tax” was masterfully marketed and approved by Jacksonville voters overwhelmingly last August.

Jacksonville Bold 3.31.17 — Too much of a good thing

In a sense, Jacksonville is the cradle of Republicanism.

The city has a politically active Republican mayor.

The City Council: majority Republican.

Republican Governor. Republican Legislature.

What could go wrong? How about the imminent end of the economic boom?

Look at what’s happening to CSX.

Hunter Harrison, 72, was brought in to run the operation, imposing a “Logan’s Run” management style, in which those with real experience were shown the door.

Sure, the company was top-heavy. But the reality is a lot of people are losing a lot of good jobs.

Where will they find new ones?

The job creation events, a staple of the early part of Mayor Lenny Curry’s term, have dried up — a function of corporate unease over imperiled Enterprise Florida.

Their attitude: “if you lack the money, honey, we lack the time.”

Pension reform is a big story — and we’re covering it a few stories below the lede.

But there is an irony that in a city and a state where Republicans maintain control over all levers of power that economic development (flawed though it may be) is even up for discussion.

Lenny Curry, Rick Scott tag team for incentive push

In Jacksonville Wednesday for a “military roundtable” messaging on behalf of Enterprise Florida, Gov. Rick Scott and Mayor Curry said all the right things.

Scott lit up local legislators, like Jason Fischer and quasi-local ones, like Palm Coast’s Paul Renner, for voting against incentives.

But Scott didn’t serve up the fiery rhetoric he did when in Jacksonville earlier in the month.

“Along with keeping Enterprise Florida alive, we need to keep the Florida Defense Alliance,” Scott said. “We’ve got some House members who already voted to eliminate the Florida Defense Alliance.”

Scott added that the programs are “fully funded” in the Senate … and worth noting: he has had meetings this week with dozens of Senators, including Rob Bradley and Aaron Bean.

Bean called it a “happy visit.”

Bradley, lauding the governor’s “underrated sense of humor,” said  substantive issues, from EFI and Visit Florida to medical marijuana to water, were discussed — as was the “absurdity of the political process.”

Gov. Scott and Mayor Curry face the Jacksonville media.

Seal of approval

Though Gov. Scott appreciated Mayor Curry stopping in to help sell the doomed “Trumpcare” plan — which didn’t even get a House vote — the fact is the effort failed as we wrote last week.

It wasn’t Curry’s fault, or Scott’s fault: they weren’t buttonholing the Freedom Caucus or the Tuesday group. They featured in a last-minute pitch for the plan — on Curry’s turf — and Team Trump couldn’t sell it.

Curry, of course, is a party guy. Scott is looking toward Bill Nelson’s Senate seat. And sure, Florida voters have the long-term memory of fruit flies.

But this one hurt Florida — and Jacksonville — as a place the administration can sell initiatives.

The VP decided to make his stand here, giving Rutherford a platform because neighboring Ted Yoho and Ron DeSantis weren’t feeling this bill. The governor came in and got his moment in the spotlight. And Mayor Curry made the stop before going on spring break.

And all of it added up to nothing. Even Ted Yoho and Ron DeSantis, who were supposed to be pressured by the Pence push, were unmoved.

In Jacksonville Wednesday, neither Curry nor Scott demonstrated regret over the failed push, despite evidence of a Trump pivot.

“The message was ‘repeal Obamacare.’ The message remains to those Republicans in Washington: ‘repeal Obamacare,’” Curry said.

“I’ve spent a good amount of time with President Trump. I know he listens. And my hope is that we can come up with something that all Americans can embrace,” Scott added.

Water issues, near and far

Coverage over the last week has focused on regional water issues — and with good reason, as Mark Woods and A.G. Gancarski contend.

In the Florida Times-Union, Woods describes how “Old Florida” once looked: “Miles and miles of ‘perfect beauty,’ of a grand forest of cypress robed in moss and mistletoe, of cypress knees looking like champagne bottles set in the current to cool, of palms and palmettos, of gleaming water and grinning alligators.”

Jacksonville, Woods observes, isn’t like that anymore. And neither is much of North Florida, including the Keystone Lakes, as Gancarski reported for FloridaPolitics.com.

“Decades back, Lake Geneva was full — kids swam in the water that used to be underneath the raised pavilion. Out on the lake, water skiing contests and other events supported local businesses and brought tourists from miles around to this corner of Old Florida,” Gancarski wrote.

Sen. Rob Bradley, Rep. Bobby Payne and Travis Cummings with other Clay pols in Keystone Heights

Now the lakes are drying up. Sen. Rob Bradley and Rep. Bobby Payne are carrying a bill to allocate $35M of Amendment 1 money for North Florida water needs, with the Clay delegation members’ priority being to restore those lakes via pumping in water from flood-prone Black Creek.

It will help to restore the aquifer, the legislators claim.

The bill is further along in the Senate than in the House. But for the sake of the Keystone Lakes, it needs to be signed into law this year.

Pension bills filed in Council

Back in January 2016, Lenny Curry’s pension reform plan (close the current defined benefit plans and cap that $2.8B unfunded liability, extend the ½ cent local sales tax to pay for them, and lock new city hires into defined contribution plans) seemed like the heaviest of lifts.

However, the Curry administration went into Charles Atlas mode, getting Tallahassee’s OK, getting 65 percent on a referendum OKing the tax extension, and negotiating generous DC plans with the unions.

And they stiff-armed their old nemeses at the Police and Fire Pension Fund board in the bargain, saying that the PFPF had no say so in this going forward.

Now? The final step is approval from the Jacksonville City Council.

Three bills to watch

Bill 2017-257 would, if passed by the council, levy the half-cent discretionary sales tax approved by voters via referendum in August.

Bill 2017-258 affects the general employees and correctional worker plans; 2017-259 implements revisions to the Police and Fire & Rescue plans, closing extant defined benefit plans to those hired after Oct. 1, 2017. It commits the city to a 12 percent contribution for those general employees and a 25 percent contribution for correctional and public safety officers hired after October.

Councilman Bill Gulliford, a principal architect of the 2015 pension reform plan, spoke positively.

“The direction we’re going in is the right way to go,” Gulliford said, especially considering that “there are not a lot of alternatives.”

Gulliford has not seen the financial projection, but he believes “the numbers will support the proposal.”

The first date to watch: April 6, when the council will spend four hours hearing about the financial projections for the plan — data which the Curry administration has kept under wraps thus far.

Journey to 55

Here’s to your health, Duval County. You need all the help you can get.

Duval County is down seven points in the state’s yearly health rankings, from 48 to 55.

Bad optics for Mayor Lenny Curry, who put Duval on a “journey to one” last year.

“Duval County ranked 49th in length of life, 54th in quality of life, 36th in health behaviors, 10th in clinical care, 35th in social and economic factors and 58th in physical environment (physical environment looks at air pollution levels, drinking water violations, housing issues and commute times),” reports the Florida Times-Union.

St. Johns County, of course, has that No. 1 spot — and advantages which include a lack of the problems big cities face, a lack of legacy costs and industry, and a wealthier commuter population.

Vitti does Detroit

Detroit is known for many things: techno music, mass production of cars, and Motown.

Soon, the local school district may also be known for poaching Duval County’s School Superintendent, Nikolai Vitti.

Vitti, widely seen as the front-runner in the two-man race, has Detroit “in his DNA.”

The often-controversial super went back to the Motor City Wednesday to interview for that district’s top job.

“I will not lead from my office. I will lead in schools, with the staff and the community,” Vitti said in Detroit — an accurate depiction of his work in Jacksonville.

Vitti speaking at a Jacksonville church in 2016. Odds are good he won’t be back there.

More ironic, though, was his call for continuity.

“I think one of the tragedies, as far as the history of public schools in Detroit, has been an instability of leadership and constant changes so every leader wants to put their own fingerprint on a body of work and that means disrupting the previous leader’s work,” Vitti said.

The same could be said about Duval County — the district he would leave.

Some have suggested Clay County Superintendent Addison Davis replace Vitti.

Davis, Vitti’s former right-hand man, was elected in Clay last year. If he left the job, he’d leave Clay in the lurch.

But that would be Clay’s problem. Not Vitti’s, or Duval’s.

Spies Like Us

Jacksonville is a neighborly town, where someone is always watching over you. It is especially true if you were a protester of recent vintage, WJXT reported this week (piggybacking on a Times-Union report).

The issue: a JSO contract with “Geofeedia,” a company which keyword tracked social media phrases like #BlackLivesMatter … though, in what had to have been an oversight, not #AllLivesMatter.

Who’s looking out for you? Until recently, these guys and gals.

Geofeedia was cut off from social media platforms this year after the American Civil Liberties Union balked at the data-harvesting.

JSO’s Geofeedia deal lapsed; however, those at protest events had better be ready for the spotlight, as rallies are recorded.

“You never know what is going to happen,” is the rationale for that.

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Unconventional convention center

Jacksonville’s Prime Osborn Convention Center is heavily booked these days, reports the Florida Times-Union.

For trade shows, though, rather than conventions.

And for those advocating that Jacksonville build a new convention center — a contention made by many stakeholders over the years, one crystallized in Mayor Curry’s transition team recommendations in 2015 — millions of dollars are at stake.

Prime Osborn Convention Center at work. [Photo: VisitJacksonville.com]

Council President Lori Boyer contends “in terms of the size of the facility and of the amenities offered in the facility compared to what larger and newer convention centers elsewhere offer, we’re certainly at a disadvantage.”

However, Boyer and others agree that a convention center has to come with other upgrades: more hotels, being closer to the action, a revitalized entertainment district.

Can Jacksonville make up for decades lost to places like Orlando and San Diego regarding chasing conventioneers? That very much is an open question.

JIA CRA sunset

Community Redevelopment Agencies, or CRAs, are under fire in Tallahassee and Jacksonville both, as we reported Wednesday.

On the state level, a bill is moving through the House to end them … but appears to be stalled out in the Senate.

Locally, one CRA — that of the Jacksonville International Airport — has been recommended for sunset in 2019 by its trustees.

While they claim that the CRA accomplished its goals of blight reduction, councilors are pushing back, saying that there is plenty of real blight in the area that was not addressed

In fact, the “blight” the JIA CRA addressed mainly involved replacing trees with the River City Marketplace, a shopping center which has helped to put Dunn Avenue and Gateway Mall on life support.

The disconnect between the CRA board and the councilors speaks to a fundamental lack of communication as to what the CRA was supposed to do.

Ironically, that only helps to make the case that thus far has been more persuasive in the House than in the Senate.

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Down with LNG?

Liquefied Natural Gas, or LNG, is a big part of the region’s energy strategy — with evidence of that surfacing last week by two 260-ton storage tanks housed at JAXPORT.

“The tanks — each one-half the length of a football field — are each able to hold 100 million liters of LNG fuel, which means enough for 14 days of travel — two round trips to Puerto Rico,” reports WJXT.

Crowley Maritime has dropped $500M into the technology, about which one corporate rep said Jacksonville was “leading the world.”

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Flagler residents tell Paul Renner they want home rule on vacation rentals

A standing-room-only crowd packed into the Hammock Community Center last weekend to tell Republican Rep. Renner that they don’t like the vacation rental bills moving through the Florida Legislature this year.

Hammock residents said they don’t like companies such as Airbnb coming into their neighborhoods to rent single-family homes to vacationers, and they say the argument that vacation rental companies are keeping cash-strapped homeowners from facing foreclosure is baloney.

“There’s really absolutely no truth in the fact that these are struggling people trying to keep their house. These are investors who are preying on us, ruining our community,” one homeowner said to applause.

Renner seemed responsive to his constituents’ pleas at the town hall, whereas the area’s senator, Travis Hutson, hasn’t been.

Renner said he’d vote no on HB 425 when it comes up in committee this week, and that he’ll vote against it if it reaches the floor. Hutson, who was not at the town hall, hasn’t made his opinion known on the bill, which would curb local control measures on vacation rentals that he pushed through the Legislature in 2014.

A word with Marty Fiorentino

The president of The Fiorentino Group in Jacksonville, spent the past few weeks shuttling back-and-forth to Washington, D.C. to help Transportation Secretary Elaine Chao, a longtime friend, get things up and running at the federal agency. A transportation expert in his own regard, we caught up with Fiorentino to talk about his relationship with Chao and transportation issues on the horizon.

FP: Tell me a little bit about your history with Secretary Chao.

MF: During the administration of President George H.W. Bush, I served as counselor to the Deputy Secretary of Transportation, who was Elaine Chao. After moving back to Florida, we remained friends over the years. She later became head of the Peace Corps, President of the United Way and Secretary of Labor for eight years under President George W. Bush. She was named Secretary of Transportation by President Trump. She asked me to come up to Washington to assist her as things got up and running at the Department of Transportation and I was honored to help.

FP: From an outsider’s perspective, the Cabinet confirmation process seemed to be tumultuous. As someone on the inside, what was it like working with Secretary Chao through the transition?

MF: Actually, Secretary Chao’s confirmation process was relatively uneventful. She is well-known by the Senate and has had a distinguished career of public service. In fact, she was one of the first cabinet members confirmed by the Senate.

Marty Fiorentino

FP: How do you think the Secretary will work to implement the president’s campaign promise for massive infrastructure spending?

MF: The president has made infrastructure funding one of his highest priorities. An interagency group has been established at the White House led by the National Economic Council to develop a national infrastructure plan. Transportation issues cut across numerous departments and involve everything from pipelines and broadband to the energy grid, roads, bridges, ports, airports, permitting and public-private partnerships and finance. It involves Treasury, Energy, EPA, DOD, OMB, Interior, Commerce and, of course, USDOT. The Secretary has a working group that meets internally and weekly with the White House to develop this plan and DOT will have a big part in implementing it.

FP: As a Floridian, what infrastructure projects do you think should be a top priority for Secretary Chao and President Trump?

MF: Florida of course! Actually, the time it takes to permit transportation projects is a terrible economic burden and job killer. If we can shorten that process it will unlock a lot of economic prosperity and expedite long needed transportation projects that are under design and development. Governor Scott has been to Washington and Secretary Chao and I had lunch with him. He was a strong advocate for Florida’s highway, rail, port and airport projects. Personally, I think the Governor has been spot on with his early support of Florida’s seaports and willingness to put the state’s money behind them.

Jacksonville Zoo LEGO-themed Safari EGGscursion

Jacksonville Zoo & Gardens hosts Eggscursion, its annual spring event, April 15 from 10 a.m. to 1 p.m. The theme of this year’s hunt will be a LEGO Egg Scavenger Hunt. Guests will crisscross the Zoo searching for hidden LEGO eggs throughout the park. Participants that register guesses with the correct number of eggs found will be eligible to win a Grand Prize! Also included are bounce houses, photo ops, games and crafts and goody bags on the Great Lawn. Eggscursion is free with Zoo admission.

Trailer Bridge boosts service from JAXPORT to Dominican Republic

Trailer Bridge, Inc., is now offering added service to the Dominican Republic from JAXPORT’s Blount Island Marine Terminal. The company will offer two sailings per week to Santo Domingo, in addition to its longtime weekly call from JAXPORT to Puerto Plata. The vessels also call San Juan, Puerto Rico during the twice-weekly rotation to Santo Domingo.

Trailer Bridge serves the Dominican Republic trade lane with larger, 53-foot containers which the company says significantly reduces per-unit cost over traditional 40-foot containers. Trailer Bridge has been serving the Caribbean market through JAXPORT for more than 25 years.

Despite AHCA punt, Rick Scott and Lenny Curry want to ‘repeal and replace’ Obamacare

The biggest political setback for the Donald Trump administration, thus far: the failure to get the American Health Care Act even to the House floor.

The administration’s attempts to message its health care reform legislation were short-lived.

However, one of the key theaters in that effort was Jacksonville, where VP Mike Pence, Gov. Rick Scott, and Mayor Lenny Curry messaged on the perceived failings of Obamacare.

Scott and Curry spent political capital on the effort: Scott especially, as he helped the Trump administration figure out its approach to health care reform, though Curry, as a local mayor, irked half the city by messaging on this national issue.

Appearing together in front of live microphones for the first time since that effort, we asked the governor and the mayor both about their feelings on the aborted health care legislation.

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 Our first question: did the Trump administration waste their time?

Scott sighed before responding, but hewed to familiar talking points.

“I’m going to continue to fight to make sure people have access to health care. Here’s what we know: we know that when health care costs go up, it impacts access. Either you can’t pay for it, your employer can’t pay for it, or the government can’t pay for it.”

“President Trump inherited an absolute mess. Obamacare’s spiraling out of control, and President Obama left in the nick of time,” Scott said. “We’ve got to find a way to drive down costs. I’m going to keep working … with the President, the Vice-President, the Congress, a friend of mine — HHS Secretary Tom Price  — to come up with a plan that’s good for everybody.”

“We want everybody in the state to have access to good health care,” Scott emphasized.

Curry, meanwhile, “wanted to echo what the governor said. The message was ‘repeal Obamacare.’ The message remains to those Republicans in Washington: ‘repeal Obamacare’.”

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Of course, there are existential questions about what that repeal may look like, as President Trump appears to have pivoted.

Meeting with a bipartisan group of Senators in Washington, Trump vowed to to “make a deal on health care … I have no doubt that that’s going to happen very quickly.”

We asked Scott if Trump was in danger of selling out the GOP base on this issue.

“Here’s what’s important to me,” the governor said. “We’ve got to come up with a way for people to have access to health care. If you can’t afford it, you don’t have access. My goal is come up with something that gives people good access to health care.”

“I’ve spent a good amount of time with President Trump. I know he listens. And my hope is that we can come up with something that all Americans can embrace.

Rick Scott, Lenny Curry talk economic incentives in Jacksonville

For the second time in a fortnight, Gov. Rick Scott came to Jacksonville on Wednesday to outline the importance of Enterprise Florida.

This time, he discussed the Florida Defense Alliance, which has helped bring in grants within the last year to Clay County for academic enrichment and land buffering near Camp Blanding, and Duval via Defense Reinvestment Grants.

As part of voting against Enterprise Florida this Legislative Session, eight Clay and Duval legislators voted against the Florida Defense Alliance: a creation of Enterprise Florida.

Jason Fischer, Clay Yarborough, Kimberly Daniels, Cord Byrd, and Tracie Davis were all in the governor’s sights at the Florida Air National Guard building.

Jacksonville Mayor Lenny Curry — who gave Fischer’s campaign a critical boost before the August 2016 GOP primary — was on hand offering backup.

For Scott, a Navy veteran, and Curry, the son of a Navy vet, military issues such as the Florida Defense Alliance are central to messaging — and a larger economic vision.

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Scott noted Florida’s 20 military bases and three unified commands early in his remarks, denoting that the vote against the Florida Defense Alliance was part of a larger package, which included House repudiations of other incentives.

“There’s going to be BRAC again,” Scott said, citing the significance to Jacksonville.

A light BRAC is slated for 2019, and another one for 2021.

“Along with keeping Enterprise Florida alive, we need to keep the Florida Defense Alliance,” Scott said. “We’ve got some House members who already voted to eliminate the Florida Defense Alliance.”

Scott added that the programs are “fully-funded” in the Senate.

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Curry lauded Scott for trying to make Florida the “most military-friendly, veteran friendly state,” adding that “there’s no place better to have this conversation than Jacksonville.”

Curry said incentives were “not a theoretical discussion for a mayor of a big city.”

“We use incentives here in Jacksonville … in a very accountable way that respects the taxpayers and provides return on investment,” Curry said.

Scott “measures everything,” Curry said, citing his long, pre-mayoral history with Scott which dates back to the mayor’s time atop Florida’s Republican Party.

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Curry had spoken of incentives before, though his words have not gotten much traction in the local media on this subject.

In February, he told us 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.”

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After the event, the governor and the mayor discussed potential political repercussions for local House members who voted against incentives.

Comments were interesting.

Scott noted that he will be in “cities across the state, almost every day, talking about the importance of jobs.”

“I’m going to let everybody know how people voted, because people should know, and there’s a chance they might reach out to their House member and they’ll reach out to their Senator, because this is important,” Scott added.

“At the end of the Session, they’ll pass a budget at some point, and I’ll review the budget and make sure the dollars are spent well,” Scott said.

Curry noted that his relationship with the governor wasn’t a “purely political relationship, but was borne out of mutual respect between two people who want to do the right thing for the people.”

“Members of the Duval Delegation — we agree on a lot of issues, we agree on most issues. We disagree on this issue. I think that this is a big disagreement, an important one, that can have a negative impact on the people of Jacksonville,” Curry noted.

There is a larger issue here. Curry ran on jobs, and given that the current evisceration of CSX goes hand-in-hand with a decrease in job creation locally, there is a possibility that the job trend and the legislators’ recalcitrance could leave the mayor politically vulnerable.

Curry wasn’t worried, however.

“A.G., you know me well enough to know that I don’t worry about political vulnerabilities,” the mayor said.

“I’m going to get up every day like the governor does and fight for the people of Jacksonville. Regardless of the environment and the landscape I’m faced with, should these members travel a road that’s not good for our city, I’m going to still fight for the people of Jacksonville every single day.”

Key Jacksonville councilors warm to Lenny Curry pension bills

Two of the most veteran politicians on Jacksonville’s City Council, Bill Gulliford and Tommy Hazouri, discussed the newly-introduced pension legislation with Mayor Lenny Curry Tuesday.

In what may be a sign of a smooth process to come, as the council spends much of April workshopping and mulling the changes to the city’s pension plans, both Gulliford and Hazouri came out of the meeting favorably disposed to the reform legislation (though with questions about the financial impact, numbers which have yet to be rolled out to the public).

Gulliford, a key architect of the 2015 pension reform plan, spoke positively.

“The direction we’re going in is the right way to go,” Gulliford said, especially considering that “there are not a lot of alternatives.”

Gulliford has not seen the financial projection, but he believes “the numbers will support the proposal.”

Gulliford is interested in seeing the breakdown of financial numbers; those will be introduced to the city council Apr. 6, during a council workshop.

Hazouri, meanwhile, says his “questions were answered,” though he wants to talk to the council auditor to get his take.

The ultimate goal: “addressing the horrific $2.8 Billion unfunded liability.”

“We need to address that responsibly, which the mayor is attempting to do,” Hazouri said.

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The council will embark on an ambitious schedule regarding pension reform.

A workshop is slated for April 6 to discuss financial particulars of the legislation.

The Police and Fire Pension Fund impact statement is expected Apr. 10.

Council will have a public hearing on Apr. 11 on the pension bills. If the hearing doesn’t wrap by midnight, discussion will have to continue on a future date.

A committee of the whole is expected to convene Apr. 19.

And there may be a special council meeting on Apr. 20 or Apr. 24, ahead of the regular meeting on Apr. 25.

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