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A fired-up Lenny Curry pitches Jax Rotary Club on pension tax referendum

“It ain’t sexy and it’s not easy, but if you keep telling the truth, people are going to get it.”

At a meeting of the Rotary Club of Jacksonville Monday, a fired-up Mayor Lenny Curry spoke with urgency on the biggest municipal issue on the 2016 ballot: the referendum that would extend the half-cent infrastructure tax past 2030 until 2060, or whenever the $2.7 billion unfunded actuarial liability on pension costs is fully funded.

In his remarks, Curry stressed the bipartisan nature of “Yes for Jacksonville,” the political committee he chairs that will market the pension tax as the best solution for Jacksonville’s unfunded liability woes, noting former Sheriff Nat Glover is a co-chair of the committee, and Councilman Tommy Hazouri, a former mayor himself, is one of the chairs of the finance team.

He wasn’t shy about the process of marketing the referendum: he’s raising dollars for “heavy TV, heavy mail pieces,” Curry said, along with “heavy grassroots.”

“I know what it’s going to take to win,” the mayor said during his opening remarks.

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Beyond that, Curry hearkened back to the soaring themes of his inaugural address last July, setting the stage for arguably the most detailed discussion of the referendum and the potential implementation of the tax — and the pension reform that will accompany it.

“I recognize the value of time,” Curry said, and “time is not on our side.”

Citing a “sense of urgency,” Curry noted that he’s “been mayor for a year, but it feels like a month.”

Curry recapped the budget process last summer, noting the “heavy lift and a big task” of assuming office and getting a budget passed unanimously by the council.

The mayor noted the discovery of $58 million of taxpayer dollars in sub-funds helped to facilitate that process “without raising taxes.”

From there, Curry also described the sometimes-tumultuous process of restructuring boards and commissions, one with attendant controversy that he pushed through in an effort to make them “the best possible organizations they can be.”

All of this preamble reminded the Rotarians that Curry was a reform-minded conservative.

And it set the stage for a no-holds-barred discussion of the heaviest lift of all: pension reform.

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The figures Curry recited, by this point, are well-known to those paying attention.

A $2.7 billion unfunded pension liability, with $1.7 billion being police and fire, representing almost a third of the total municipal burden in that regard, consuming $260 million of the operating budget last year.

Eventually, he added later on, the hit will be $400 million.

“This really is the road Detroit traveled,” Curry said, in what could be construed as a response to a Florida Times-Union article over the weekend that questioned his “end-of-days” phrasing.

“If we continue to debate without a solution,” the mayor added, “we’re headed down that path.”

From there, Curry litanized the parade of woes: a shortage of cops, infrastructure problems, problems with septic tanks, and the collapse of Liberty Street — an issue that was totemic in the 2015 campaign.

Then the mayor brought it home, noting that even functions like landscape maintenance are getting shorted.

“We’re not mowing as often as we should be,” Curry said, before recounting a conversation he had on a neighborhood walk.

The woman he talked to, when asked if her neighborhood was safe, noted that “we haven’t heard gunfire in 30 days.”

Later in the discussion, in response to an audience question, Curry qualified the Detroit trope.

“It’s a long road to travel,” Curry said regarding the budget disaster Detroit faced, “but we have all the signs today.”

Without change, even with the millage hike Curry resists and his critics suggest, a Detroit disaster “won’t happen tomorrow, but will come.”

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From there, Curry referred back to the emergency audit the city commissioned last year, during the mayoral transition.

“Our financial situation is the biggest risk facing Jacksonville,” Curry said.

“This is our crisis, our opportunity, our moment to change,” the mayor continued, before aiming at his unnamed critics again.

“Anyone who believes [that we can proceed as if] business as usual,” Curry said, “has their head in the sand or doesn’t understand the risk.”

Meanwhile, Curry likened a millage hike to being like a struggling business raising its prices, and “not thinking of its customer base long term.”

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Curry then pivoted to the politics of getting the deal through Tallahassee.

“When this idea was hatched,” Curry said, “the odds of getting this through a conservative House, a conservative Senate, and a conservative governor were extremely unlikely.”

There was, Curry said, discussion of if they should wait until a future legislative session, as people said a committee hearing in the House was unlikely.

And during that committee process, Curry added later on, when the 401K option was mentioned in a hearing, he “thought the wheels were coming off.”

But the wheels did not come off in committee.

In part, he said, he got it through because of personal relationships: “they know me and they know I’m going to collectively bargain” a deal that reflects the market and doesn’t cripple the budget.

And Curry, in talking to the Rotarians, was clearly intent on leveraging relationships there too, making sure the wheels on his referendum didn’t come off on the streets of Jacksonville.

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The mayor discussed the possibility of amortizing the debt, a talking point that had been put on the back burner, saying at one point that because of it, “likely there would be budget relief” that would “impact current budgets.”

Curry also noted, regarding a question about the new plans that would result from collective bargaining, that he won’t replace the current defined benefit plans with “anything that looks like what exists now because it wouldn’t be sustainable.”

And regarding collective bargaining, the mayor projected confidence.

“Every decision that I make is strategic and planned to detail,” Curry said, “and every single path I usually have an answer for the path when it arrives.”

“We have to collectively bargain,” Curry said, and as a result “I can’t commit to you what plans look like.”

One commitment he could make: “in no scenario,” Curry said, would he “roll over” and say “the other side has greater bargaining power.”

Meanwhile, though Curry is committed to tough collective bargaining, he noted that wasn’t at the expense of the rank and file, which has been subject to “demonization” in some quarters during the extended civic debate.

“They understand that … the money’s not there to pay benefits out,” Curry said, and so a holistic solution is necessary, including substantive reform and bargaining every three years to agree on terms that “reflect the market.”

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Curry noted the hit on budgets caused by pension costs, including that of the sheriff’s office, as FloridaPolitics.com covered Monday morning.

The budget, Curry said, is going up by $16 million, with legacy pension costs being $9 million … at a time when the city needs more police officers.

“Pension costs are eating the budget alive,” Curry said.

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Still on the table as a “tool in the toolbox”: borrowing money, which Curry is reluctant to do.

He notes that the “out-year revenue” of the tax “could be considered an asset” for that purpose.

Borrowing, Curry said, would be contingent on a “public debate of council.”

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While it is almost a certainty that Curry’s remarks, here or anywhere else, won’t completely mollify the critics, what was clear Monday at the Rotary Club was Curry is getting increasingly comfortable breaking down the complex web of pension politics into digestible chunks for a crowd.

Naturally, the Rotarians are Curry’s peers: he’s even a member of the club.

The success or failure of the August referendum is predicated on Curry making the case that his path is the path to fiscal sustainability and security in the face of a problem that, if unresolved, would unmoor the vision of his office and put challenges into Jacksonville’s near-term future that no one wants to articulate, much less consider.

Written By

A.G. Gancarski has been a working journalist for over two decades, with bylines in national and local publications alike on subjects ranging from pop music to national and global politics. Gancarski has been a correspondent for FloridaPolitics.com since 2014, and has held a column in Jacksonville, Florida's Folio Weekly for two decades. In 2018, he was a finalist for an Association of Alternative Newsweeklies "best political column." Gancarski is a frequent presence on Jacksonville television and radio, including fill-in slots on WJCT-FM's award-winning talk show "First Coast Connect." He can be reached at a.g.gancarski@gmail.com.

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