Monday night’s JAX ICARE multifaith “Nehemiah Assembly” on the Northside of Jacksonville was intended to serve as a Come to Jesus moment for Jacksonville public officials… especially Mayor Lenny Curry.
However, it turned out to be a Come to Jesus moment for those who showed up to hear the mayor. The subject? The Pension Tax.
Last year at this event, there was a bit of controversy: as a candidate, Curry did not appear, which caused consternation to some. But which didn’t affect his election ultimately.
The burden for an incumbent, of course, is different: Curry received scores and scores of messages imploring him to attend; eventually, he relented.
On tap for Curry: a discussion of whether or not he would implement Alvin Brown’s model for wealth building in Northwest Jacksonville, and whether or not Curry would open a new Homeless Day Resource Center downtown.
He was clearly intended to offer meek assent to both conditions, by way of placating the crowd.
The reality, as it so often is, was different.
A little prologue: a speaker noted that ICARE was not able to meet with Mayor Curry, whose office preferred to receive the questions in writing.
There was an edge to the speaker’s voice, which set the stage for an interesting dialectic to come.
When asked if Curry would support a wealth building model, rooted in this community, along the lines of the one his predecessor agreed to a year prior, the mayor said that “I support the model. We are in Phase II right now, looking at the procurement process.”
His questioner: “I believe that’s a yes.”
From there, Curry had two minutes to address the audience. He spoke of “major issues with economic development in NW Jacksonville,” and discussed getting “real results” from the Northwest Jacksonville Economic Development Fund.
“This is the reality we’re facing. Jacksonville’s budget is crippled by unfunded pension liabilities,” Curry said, pitching the pension tax referendum.
“If there is a no vote, there is no money,” Curry said, citing “bad decisions” of the past that are “crippling our city and our city’s financial future.”
Some applause greeted that appeal. Along with some murmurs in the nosebleed seats.
From there, the program moved to the Homeless Day Resource Center, a controversial cut in Curry’s first budget.
However, Curry was not to be moved off his block. On this night, as will be the case until the August referendum, Curry was an evangelist. And the topic of his summer sermon series?
The parable of the pension tax.
ICARE wanted a firm commitment from the mayor himself to bring back the Homeless Day Resource Center.
“Gotta solve the pension,” Curry said, citing “incredibly complicated questions.”
“There is no money,” said Curry, if the pension crisis is not solved.
Crowd members gasped.
Then he was asked if he supported it conceptually.
Curry stood his ground, saying “we do not have the money to do it right now.”
He was then asked if he would include $311,000 for the center in the budget, in what seemed to be an unwillingness by the speaker to accept economic reality.
Again, Curry said that “until the pension is solved, we don’t have the money for new programs.”
The question was asked… again.
“Not in this budget cycle.”
The belief was expressed that a “budget is a moral document,” and that “what we’re talking about is not even one percent of the city budget.”
“This budget cycle is going to be one of the toughest… pension costs are $288 million a year. Someone has to get serious about this, and about our financial future,” Curry said
“Stand with me and support it, and Jacksonville will have brighter days ahead,” Curry added.
The question was asked. Again.
“If you don’t bring it forward, we know the Homeless Day Resource Center doesn’t stand a chance,” the speaker said.
Curry then said that, if the referendum passes, it’s a “whole new conversation” for Council as it reviews the budget.
“I will examine the number. I believe in the resource center,” Curry said, adding that “if the referendum passes… I will be supportive of a discussion.”
“I sign off on things that I believe in that I know speak to budget priorities and are going to get results,” Curry said about “taxpayer dollars.”
The case made, again, for having a center open for five days a week… with an option for three days a week at $240,000.
“It’s the same answer. This pension crisis is the biggest issue and opportunity… we’ve spent years and years kicking the can down the road. This is real,” Curry said, as the microphone went dead.
“This pension crisis is real… you haven’t seen what it means for you because services have been eroded and you just don’t see it.”
“Ladies and gentlemen – the money doesn’t exist…. Someone has to shoot straight with you, and that is what I am doing tonight.”
While Curry believes in helping the homeless, he also sees a ledger sheet flush with red ink, and himself in a race against time against the pension crisis.
“I will work with non-profits… if there are private dollars… I will absolutely be a part of that,” Curry said.
Curry noted, in closing, that when he “ran for mayor,” he “got to travel to parts of this city [he] never experienced.”
Then he went in and made his point: serious services have been cut. Drastically.
Services for at-risk youth. Police officers on the street. Community service officers.
“Our budget is so crippled,” Curry said, noting nearly $300 million a year going to a pension liability… one from which no one in that room derived any tangible benefit.
Walking out of the room, FloridaPolitics.com caught up with Curry, who looked exhilarated, like he’d just been, to borrow a phrase from Teddy Roosevelt, “in the arena.”
“Feels great,” Curry said.
Then, as he exited the church, the crush of cameras from local TV stations. And Curry, as he has done all year, made his case for the necessity of the referendum passing, calling the pension crisis “the biggest risk and the biggest issue” that Jacksonville faces.
A legacy cost that does “nothing for public safety.”
Jacksonville’s budget position, Curry said, was like a “frog in boiling water” thanks to “close to $300 million” that goes to “things that have nothing to do with daily lives.”
And the next budget, Curry reiterated, will reflect those sunk costs. “A very tight budget,” Curry said, that will “conserve as many taxpayer dollars as I can.”
“We’re on a financial cliff,” Curry said. “If we don’t solve it now, we’re going to have some dark days ahead.”
As the press gaggle disbursed, a gentleman leaving the church lauded the mayor for telling it like it is.
Indeed, that play took more courage than certain other politicians show to that body.
Curry knows that for Jacksonville to function as it needs to, the unfunded liability has to be addressed. He will tell harsh truths to make sure it happens.