On a sweltering Thursday, Jacksonville Mayor Lenny Curry convened with local police and fire union heads and AFSCME members to receive the union’s backing for County Referendum 1, the Aug. 30 plebiscite that would extend the current half-cent sales tax from 2030 to 2060, with the revenue used to guarantee payoff of the $2.8 billion unfunded pension liability.
The sight of a Republican mayor flanked by public sector union heads and members was interesting, especially in the light of resistance from two former GOP presidents of Jacksonville’s city council Wednesday.
AFSCME represents a lot of city employees, including the public safety unions, and the local head Ben Carter bemoaned the “strain on the city budget” created by the pension liability, which has increased by 350 percent since 2008.
If resolved with a yes vote, said Carter, the impacts will be salutary: “millions of dollars to start and finish public works projects” and money to augment the city workforce.
Speaking in communitarian tones closer in spirit to Howard Zinn than Howard Philips, were the heads of the local public safety unions.
Fire union head Randy Wyse spoke of “brothers and sisters,” united in support of the “most important thing labor has seen here in a long time.”
“Security and safety,” Wyse said, hang in the balance, with “great things in front of us” during the negotiation process.
Police union head Steve Zona, meanwhile, lauded the mayor for being “willing to tackle the problem,” which would “free up some money in the operating budget.”
After the event, Curry talked to local media, and among the topics: the untimely opposition to the referendum posed by former councilmen Stephen Joost and Bill Bishop, both Republicans who appeared at press conferences endorsing Curry’s Democratic opponent last year, with the latter a fixture with Alvin Brown as he courted the Riverside hipster vote down the stretch.
Curry was emphatic, wondering “where were they” for the last eight months, calling both of them “part of the problem.”
“They ignored it,” Curry said.
When asked if the play of Bishop and Joost was “political payback,” Curry said that he didn’t know their motivation.
“My reaction was: who? I don’t have time to psychoanalyze the motivations of two former politicians,” Curry said.
“Their answer is to raise the millage rate. One even said a new sales tax.”
That shows, Curry said, how “uneducated” Bishop and Joost are on the issue.
When asked about the tepid response his pension-tax pitch got at the Trump rally last week, Curry acknowledged he didn’t expect it to get a standing ovation, before describing a conversation with a constituent — an elderly person, on Social Security — that lasted 20 minutes and followed up by some emails.
After explaining the mechanics of the deal, Curry flipped that person to a “likely yes vote.”
When Curry talks to people one-on-one or in town halls, he says people understand the urgency of the situation, and that the pension tax represents the way forward.
However, the reality is he can only have so many of those individual and small group interactions in the next 19 days.
And that makes the unlikely support for a Republican initiative from public sector unions like AFSCME all the more necessary.