Kerri Stewart pitches pension tax to Jax Chamber North Council

Kerri Stewart

On Thursday Kerri Stewart, chief of staff for Jacksonville Mayor Lenny Curry, addressed the Jax Chamber North Council.

Among the topics: Curry’s first year in office, the new budget and, inexorably, the pension tax referendum, which Stewart has been marketing around town along with Curry and members of the Jacksonville City Council.

Stewart rattled off the mayoral priorities in the budget: public safety, youth services, neighborhoods, and so on.

However, she cautioned, the budget had a limitation: “the key barrier to Jacksonville’s future,” Stewart said, “is pension debt.”

“The pension problem,” continued Stewart, is the “greatest threat for the future,” spurring a “slow degradation of city services.”

Stewart’s language here echoed Curry’s own words, that it’s become the “new normal to accept second-rate services.”

Those degraded services, Stewart added, are due to the difference between the pension obligation — which Curry stated was $292 million — and the $75 million hit that would be the case if there were not an unfunded liability millstone.

Stewart then pivoted to a new trope, putting the pension hit in national perspective, citing a “$3.4 trillion pension funding hole,” and saying Jacksonville has an “opportunity to blaze a trail” in allowing beleaguered cities to handle the debt on the installment plan.

[The non-partisan American Interest notes solutions include 401(k) plans for employees or “curtailing the power of public sector unions,” both easier said than done. However, the extended amortization period is a solution that didn’t occur to its writer, a testament to the novelty of the plan.]

Stewart said projections predict the unfunded liability would be retired by 2048 if the referendum passes.

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Questions came from those in attendance:

What about the Better Jacksonville Plan, the debt for which is currently what the half-cent sales tax is financing?

Stewart noted “all projects are on schedule,” and that the tax is, in effect, “unless or until all projects are complete and all paid off.”

Then she pivoted back to the pension tax, noting the benefit of being able to “stretch out the amortization from 24 to 30 years” is “like taking a 15-year mortgage and stretching it out to 30 years.”

“We will start seeing relief,” Stewart said, if the pension tax passes, with “new plans tied to the market.”

Until that scenario happens, she added, certain priority projects are on pause.

One such is city involvement in the Shipyards project.

“Nothing is going on with the city,” Stewart said, though Jaguars owner Shad Khan is “moving on with [his] plans.” Remediation is ongoing, yet further “negotiations have ceased for the time being.”

Also “stalled” until “financial certainty” is achieved: city investment in the Laura Street Trio project.

Not everything is on hold though.

The Jacksonville Sheriff’s Office received the lion’s share of real enhancements in the new budget, including 40 new officers, 40 new community service officers, a new 911 system, and a new fingerprinting system.

Yet, in the context of violence against police, there is a need for “more officers so [current] officers aren’t stretched thin.”

And fulfilling campaign assurances to commit resources to underserved communities, $15 million in water and sewer projects are earmarked toward Northwest Jacksonville.

“The mayor changed the prioritization,” Stewart said, with a new model “weighted for communities built before 1968,” when the city was consolidated.

Sidewalk installation and ADA upgrades also are focused on the older neighborhoods, among “a lot of infrastructural projects” and “neighborhood, youth, and health initiatives … driven by data.”

Stewart is an essential part of the sales pitch for the plan. Her calm manner is rooted in policy and pragmatism. And, ultimately, pragmatism will have to sell the plan.

Jacksonville voters can expect to see Democrats supportive of the pension tax referendum in upcoming ads.

The bipartisan nature of support, in that context, sets up an interesting paradigm.

Supporters of the plan include the political class, public sector unions, and the business community.

Opponents of the plan? They exist, to be sure. Congressional candidate Bill McClure and local attorney John Winkler are both stumping against it, but there is no coordinated effort of resistance.

With Curry enjoying healthy favorable ratings among Republicans and Democrats both, and with no resistance on the city council to his budgetary priorities for a second straight year, the mayor lacks the organic opposition that might complicate selling the plan.

Though “Yes for Jacksonville,” the committee marketing the plan, only has $800,000 on hand … somewhat short of the $3 to $4 million that had been hoped for before competitive races in the 4th Congressional District and state attorney GOP primaries diffuse the focus and the unity of the donor class, it could be enough.

A.G. Gancarski

A.G. Gancarski has written for FloridaPolitics.com since 2014. He is based in Northeast Florida. He can be reached at [email protected] or on Twitter: @AGGancarski



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