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Pension, contribution issues dominate JEA Agreement meeting

Tuesday’s JEA Agreement meeting, at least on the agenda, was dominated by two meaningful issues.

The first: pension issues, in light of both the General Counsel ruling that Council, and not JEA, was the appropriative body for pay negotiations.

This ruling overruled the previous General Counsel’s take on the matter earlier in the decade.

As well, the pension issues were to be viewed in light of any potential impact of Lenny Curry‘s pension tax plan, in which a half-cent sales tax would be used to defray the Unfunded Liability of the city’s various pension plans.

The second meaningful issue on the agenda: the contribution formula, a perpetual point of negotiation between the utility and the city government.

• Chair Bill Gulliford, leading off the meeting, noted that being the appropriative body would be an “additional burden” on a Council that “already has so much dadgummed stuff on the plate,” opening the door to a potential material change.

The JEA Agreement committee was not immediately sold.

Peggy Sidman, of the General Counsel’s office, noted that a change in terms may not be possible: “I don’t have a legal answer for you right now.”

Gulliford then noted that he’d talked to the General Counsel on Monday, and he “did not advance his initial opinion that we could not change it.”

Council VP Lori Boyer spoke up next, noting that since Council appropriates the budget, she would be “very concerned” about a change in terms.

“The city is the appropriating body,” Boyer said, “for independent authorities,” and such is “integral” to the consolidated government concept.

Gulliford didn’t back down, contending that JEA functions as a “partial governing body,” and that such a move may “dilute” JEA’s power. To which Boyer said, as a potential compromise, that Council could “delegate” that authority to JEA.

JEA CEO Paul McElroy, pressed by Gulliford, said that “delegation of this might be appropriate,” as in other issues related to the Independent Authority.

Matt Schellenberg noted that he may be willing to delegate in a couple of years, after “we see the success of the process first.”

No resolution was to be had on this subject on Tuesday, clearly.

• Discussion then moved to the pension tax bill in Tallahassee, which Mike Weinstein, the architect of the plan, noted that the state legislation did not differentiate between the various groups of employees in city government.

If JEA were to “opt out,” they would have to absorb the unfunded liability.

“I don’t think they’re going to do that,” Weinstein said, “given the solution is on the horizon.”

McElroy said that JEA supports “110 percent” the solution advanced in Tallahassee.

Boyer then talked about the pension plan, noting that the measure would apply after voter referendum.

Sam Mousa then noted that there may be material difference between the proposed legislation and what ends up passing, saying that the bill does not differentiate between defined contribution and defined benefit.

“It’s silent on defined benefit, silent on defined contribution, but at the end of the day, you don’t know what the legislation may or may not include.”

The bill, said Mousa, “has three or four steps ahead of it.” If the bill goes to referendum, and passes, collective bargaining will ensue.

“This is just a minor step in the process,” Mousa said, “but it will be a big step.”

Councilman Reggie Brown expressed unease about a union rejecting the terms.

Mousa noted that “we have met with the Police and Fire Unions” to “explain to them what the bill entails” and that “there’s no telling” what the bill may look like, or even if it comes out at the end of the session.

The Unions have offered conceptual support, Mousa said, but they reserve the right not to support the final product.

• Regarding the contribution formula, more will be revealed in two weeks. Lori Boyer noted that legislative and charter changes would be needed.

On changes to the BMAP and Joint Use agreements, Boyer advised, a substituted agreement rather than line-item changes would be easier for Council to digest.

Expect a longer meeting in two weeks as what appears to be a final iteration of the JEA Agreement is wrapped up, largely predicated on the terms discussed last month.

• A meeting of this committee is not complete without septic tank discussion.

Reggie Brown, an advocate of septic tank replacement, wanted a quicker timeframe on extending city sewer to underserved areas. The city and JEA have committed to provide $30 million over the next five years.

Gulliford’s response: “show me the money.”

Mousa noted that the Better Jacksonville Plan did such expansion, but “not everybody hooked up.”

He agreed with Brown that this could take “40 years” and the price tag could be over $300 million, a number frequently quoted as the price tag in 2016 dollars for addressing this need. Estimates floated could be up to a billion dollars for septic phaseout and sewer expansion.

“We’ve been dealing with this since Consolidation” Brown said, and “for those waiting on sewage since Consolidation,” this “isn’t a very time-sensitive plan.”

“A 40-year plan,” Brown said. “We should not settle for that.”

“Let’s give the [taxpayers] what is needed going forward.”

Then he called for a referendum, seemingly, asking to take sewage expansion to the people “like we do everything else.”

Brown’s position has been imbued with a sense of urgency and immediacy that is rhetorically shared by others on the committee, yet the fact is that his district and other minority-access districts deal with these issues in a more temporal way.

Lori Boyer noted that, if the Curry pension tax plan goes through, more money will be freed up for infrastructural needs, with the sales tax add on defraying the city’s currently crippling Unfunded Liability burden.

Written By

A.G. Gancarski has been a working journalist for over two decades. Gancarski has been a correspondent for FloridaPolitics.com since 2014. In 2018, he was a finalist for an Association of Alternative Newsweeklies "best political column." He can be reached at a.g.gancarski@gmail.com.

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