Jacksonville City Council authorizes August pension tax referendum
Lenny Curry sells the discretionary sales surtax bill to Jax City Council, ahead of its resolution of support.

Lenny Curry

Passage of 2016-300, which authorizes the referendum to extend the half-cent Better Jacksonville Plan sales tax to address the city’s $2.7 billion unfunded pension liability, seemed to be a certainty before Tuesday’s Jacksonville City Council meeting.

After public comment, hand wringing from some council members, and tub thumping from others, it was approved 19 to 0 — the way the mayor’s office wanted.

And needed.

Twenty-six percent of this year’s budget went to unfunded liability, with expectations of a 2 percent increase every year, said the city’s Chief Administrative Officer Sam Mousa.

With the bill’s passage, the referendum will be voted on in August.

Public comment offered some dissent before the vote. A group came up with a “Mr. Jacksonville” poster depicting their grievance. It depicted a bodybuilder, with an atrophied leg representing the Northside, a contrast to the robust build of the rest of the city.

A pastor, Darien Bolden, compared the referendum measure to the passing of the PATRIOT Act, saying that “Council should not allow itself to be bullied,” though the comparison between a sweeping reformation of domestic security laws to the authorization of a referendum to extend the sales tax was elusive.

The tax, Bolden said, was “the greatest threat to African-Americans in Jacksonville.”

Another pastor, Dave Sampson, said that “since 1968,” promises have been made to the Northside, but “the city has given the Northside … a bad check.”

Sampson described the half-cent tax, already in existence, as “an enormous tax burden on our people … for the next 30 years.”

“There are places off of US-1 where the water is worse than Flint, Michigan,” Sampson said.

The group said they had “trusted” mayors from Hans Tanzler to Alvin Brown, and weren’t willing to give Lenny Curry a “blank check.”

The pastors claimed that Curry told them: “if you don’t support the referendum in August, you can expect jack from us.”

“All of the failing schools (are) where we live. All of the sour water is where we live. All of the failing septic tanks (are) where we live,” Sampson told the council.

During discussion of the referendum, Councilman Reggie Brown described the bill as “an opportunity to make the community whole.”

While Brown supports the bill, he wondered out loud how much money would be generated by the tax, and how to assure “no one gets left behind.”

Brown then questioned why the referendum was in August — although he had been present during the committee cycle before the bill came before the council. Curry had contended that the measure would provide certainty during the budget process months back.

“There was a strategic reason why it was August, and maybe we can get someone from the administration to say it,” Brown continued.

The administration did not answer Brown’s question, as Councilman Bill Gulliford opined that he trusted the administration — and the administration wanted August.

Councilwoman Joyce Morgan wasn’t mollified by that, and called on Mousa to explain.

“The city’s facing a crisis with its pension. And the sooner that we get on with this, the better for all concerned,” Mousa said.

Another factor is the need to resume collective bargaining, which is predicated on the referendum.

“It’s been decided on … pardon me, it’s been recommended,” Mousa said, “and we ask for your support for August for very legitimate reasons.”

Councilwoman Katrina Brown wanted to know next steps after passage.

“The budget submitted to city council this summer would have no effect from the referendum. The purpose of this referendum is to solve a pension problem, once and for all, that’s been plaguing this city for years … to stop a hemorrhage … not to buy presents to put under the Christmas tree,” Mousa said.

The soonest the budget might benefit would be fiscal year 2018. Collective bargaining would come first, Mousa said, to close extant pension funds as required by state law.

“If they don’t close, there’s no money, even if the referendum passes.”

From there, “if collective bargaining goes well for both parties,” it would be up to the council to ratify the agreements.

“It will be in our bosom to recommend, but it will be in your bosom to make the ultimate decision,” Mousa said to Brown.

Councilman Tommy Hazouri referred to the unfunded liability as a “black hole,” and urged all council members to be “together on the message that we’re selling Jacksonville.”

“We’re talking about a debt that a lot of cities have and have no solutions. We have a solution,” Hazouri said, urging addressing the issue in a “tough-love way.”

Councilman Matt Schellenberg billed the tax as a way of making “outsiders” from St. Johns County, who use Jacksonville’s roads and services, pay.

And Gulliford, as involved in pension reform as anyone on the council in recent years, noted previous solutions proposed, such as a sales tax increase and an increase in the JEA franchise fee.

“Every one of those options,” Gulliford said, could have been overridden by a future council by a simple majority.

The referendum would assure citizens that “every dime would go to addressing this problem.”

Council President Greg Anderson put a bow on it, lauding “the Curry plan” for “creating a payment stream dedicated to our unfunded pension liability.” To that end, the bill is a “vehicle to make the case to the voters,” is necessary.

“If successful in August, work continues,” Anderson added, with more “important details” to follow.

Councilman John Crescimbeni reminded council that “the buck stops right here in this horseshoe,” with regard to appropriations.

“Mousa would be foolish to go to the bargaining table without a litmus test from the public … it’s got to be August,” Crescimbeni said.

A.G. Gancarski

A.G. Gancarski has been the Northeast Florida correspondent for Florida Politics since 2014. He writes for the New York Post and National Review also, with previous work in the American Conservative and Washington Times and a 15+ year run as a columnist in Folio Weekly. He can be reached at [email protected] or on Twitter: @AGGancarski


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