On Wednesday, Jacksonville Mayor Lenny Curry pitched County Referendum 1 — which would authorize a half-cent sales tax extension to address the city’s $2.8 billion unfunded pension liability — to the Southside Business Men’s Club, where one of his most recurrent political opponents is a member.
After the March 2015 first election, when the endorsement of third-place Bill Bishop was still in play, Curry spoke to the SBMC, after sharing a lunch table with Bishop, a member of the club.
Days after that, Bishop endorsed Alvin Brown. And Curry said Bishop was trying to cut a deal in exchange for his endorsement. Meanwhile, Bishop’s campaign team was enlisted into Brown’s army of consultants.
Since Curry’s election, Bishop has been quiet on most city issues, though this month he and another Republican supporter of Brown, Stephen Joost, maligned the referendum as “taxation without representation.”
Curry played off the dissidence from the former council members, saying he didn’t “have time to psychoanalyze the motivations of two former politicians.”
However, the SBMC is a Bishop crowd (even though he didn’t show on this day) — and they were, before the program commenced, raising questions about the referendum during lunch conversations, saying it would be unwise to tax their grandchildren and great-grandchildren to pay off the current $2.8 billion unfunded liability.
Indeed, these are strange times: Democrats Denise Lee and Tommy Hazouri are selling the plan, even as state Rep. Mia Jones and Sen. Audrey Gibson have come out against it. Unions back the referendum. And many Republicans have questions.
“There’s been a handful of partisans who have opposed this,” Curry said toward the end of the event, but his team has assembled an “unprecedented coalition” of people with “vested interests” in this.
Curry noted that the last time he was here was “before the election” by way of introducing his remarks on “pension reform and the Aug. 30 referendum.”
The intro was familiar to those who have followed these events: a description of a tough budget process made tougher by the dysfunctional budgets of the previous years, with the happy ending of unanimous council adoption of that budget.
Curry noted he “delivered last year without a tax increase,” silencing critics, as he did with the media-disapproved changes on boards and commissions.
From there, he described the success of the upgrade of JEA’s credit situation after the board remodeling.
And then, Curry pivoted to “pension reform.”
“I campaigned on solving it … committed to diving in and solving it,” Curry said, and he knew that it had to be solved “now,” not in the second term.
Ignoring the issue, Curry said, would have been the “wrong thing to do,” a case bolstered by “the long list of no’s” in the budget currently being considered by the council.
Curry doesn’t want to be “Dr. No,” but given the allocation of tax dollars to pension costs, he’s been forced to curtail priorities.
Curry also addressed his “road to Detroit” contention, pilloried by the unnamed “critics,” noting “Detroit didn’t happen overnight,” but happened after ignoring the problem and then raising taxes, driving people out, and ending in a “bad place.”
The plan, Curry said, is “comprehensive,” to “take an existing half-penny sales tax, vote yes to keep that around, and fund the pensions.”
Collective bargaining would follow the referendum passing, which is another road to reform.
Back to the critics.
“Some say do nothing; that’s a dumb idea,” Curry said.
A sales tax that starts today? A non-starter in Tallahassee.
Millage hikes? Also a non-starter, and the money couldn’t be earmarked for pension costs.
Curry took questions, the first having to do with the unions balking at renegotiation.
“We have had conversations about how bumpy the road is going to be … there is going to be such an incentive for them to negotiate to get a deal done,” he told the group.
Curry said that if one of the three unions strikes a deal, there would be a “strong incentive” for the other two to bargain … a contention not universally shared.
As well, collective bargaining will happen in the sunshine every three years, allowing for adjustment to market realities.
Meanwhile, Curry said, a future infrastructure tax could be passed by the council, if the body wanted to replace the Better Jacksonville Plan down the road.
“Jacksonville has been under financial constraints for many years now, primarily because of the pensions,” Curry said.
“This will set our city up for a financially sound and stable future.”