Jacksonville police union: defined benefit pensions are not ‘dinosaurs’

Steve Zona

Tuesday saw the Jacksonville Association of Fire Fighters slamming a pension reform proposal from City Hall. Wednesday saw the Fraternal Order of Police doing the same, offering its own proposals for police and corrections that include raises for all employees, pension benefits rolled back to 2015 levels for extant employees, and the Florida Retirement System pensions for new hires.

While union heads walked arm in arm for months with Mayor Lenny Curry in pushing County Referendum 1, which allowed for the extension of a 1/2 cent sales tax contingent on pension reform, the fork in the road came after the August plebiscite.

It started hot, with a discussion of how the majority of communities the size of Jacksonville have defined benefit plans.

“The city underfunded our pension,” FOP Head Steve Zona said, noting that with the surtax passed, “there is no financial crisis.”

Zona added that “if that surtax is realized, it will fund all three pension plans.”

Police union representatives noted in response to figures provided by city representatives, since the 1980s, the real dollar value of police salaries have actually gone down.

A “top end” police officer makes just over $62,000.

They then went on to argue that a 401K (the desired benefit plan of the Curry administration) is not viable for a police officer, given the risk of the job truncating career lifespans. Moreover, a market crash would provide even more adverse impacts.

The average increase per annum for a police officer: 1.4 percent over the last 16 years.

The police union contended also that JSO officers deal with the burden of being in the homicide capital of the country, facing increased risk of assault, and with the force overall bearing the impacts of attrition (#1 in the state, with resignations nearly tripling between 2008 and 2013), and increasingly difficult recruitment and training (including outsourcing training of some officers to nearby counties).

There currently are 34 vacancies on the force, and JSO officers haven’t had a pay raise since 2008, even as the purchasing power of the dollar has eroded.

Meanwhile,  Jacksonville’s starting salary is over $12,000 — or 33 percent — below the average starting salary in major Florida metros. Salary, insurance, pension contributions — all are deemed “not close to competitive.”

The police union contends that it would take a 17 percent raise to restore the entry-level officer to 2008 levels. This is especially troubling since, to fill a training class of 30, 300 officers have to be hired.

The replacement cost per officer: $100,000. Meanwhile, JSO competes with other counties that offer signing bonuses and cover Social Security.

With crime high and the quality of Jacksonville schools low, the union contends that effective and well-compensated law enforcement is especially important.

“Our current violent crime rate,” Zona said, “is the highest in the state and almost double the national average … we’ve been doing more with less, and because of this, our officers have been in danger.”

Zona, ahead of presenting a wage proposal, reiterated the lack of pay raises for eight years, and his union taking a pay cut years ago.

The beaches and airport police, he added, all make more than Jacksonville officers do.

“The offer you put on the table asks our officers to forget the last two fiscal years happened,” Zona said, adding a question: “Does the mayor intend to offer a more competitive insurance package for current employees?”

Insurance costs have “skyrocketed,” said Zona.

He then presented a wage proposal. 10 percent raises from FY 18 to FY 20, with a retroactive 3 percent raise going back to 2014, “which makes us a little bit competitive” with peer agencies.

From there, a pension proposal was presented, rooted in the context of the 2015 ordinance approved by city council that set a seven year agreement between police and fire and the city.

Zona noted that “pensions for police officers are not dinosaurs, not archaic … they are the market for public safety.”

Zona noted that Mayor Curry said that public safety members have “built their lives” around “promises” from the city.

“Our members already work in a city more dangerous than most … targeted for wearing a uniform … sit in a car, doing your job and they ambush you,” Zona said.

“Our members have earned and deserve a secure retirement,” Zona continued, noting that the Florida Retirement System is “stable” with “little risk to the city.”

Zona cited the task force report from the JSO, released earlier this week, that argued for a “competitive and reliable pension plan.”

Without that, problems with police service will be exacerbated.

Zona wants pension benefits restored to pre-2015 levels, ensuring that employees hired since then will have the same benefits as those hired previously.

New hires would be placed in the Florida Retirement System, which would “realize the terms of the referendum legislation.” Contributions would be 10 percent of salaries.

“If the mayor wants to be out of the pension business, this needs to be a 20 year deal,” Zona added.

City negotiators, after a pause, came back with “adjustments” to their previous proposal, asking for models from the police union.

The wage offer: increased to 2 percent for this year, 7 percent for next year, and 3.5 percent for each of the next two years.

The city still does not want new hires funneled into the FRS, remaining committed to the defined contribution scheme.

Combining classifications of current employees – bringing all current employees into the same class – is a point the city is willing to discuss, however.

The mayor, said city negotiators, is averse to the FRS because benefits would be defined by the Florida Legislature, and Jacksonville would be a “very small piece of that population.”

The city also is averse to “risk” imposed by not being a bargaining partner because of this scheme.

Zona pressed for more specific detail on the risk assessment, but detail wasn’t provided.

So he then provided it: employer contribution in FRS has risen just 4.1 percent in 17 years, which he asserts represents “very little risk” to the city.

“We want out of the pension negotiation business,” Zona said. “We don’t want it to be subject to politics in Tallahassee. There’s politics here too. You guys want to negotiate pensions with us every three years.”

Curry, meanwhile, “won’t be a mayor past eight years.”

Zona notes that previous mayors “failed miserably” in maintaining the integrity of pensions, and that the stable FRS offers “very little risk,” especially compared to the risk officers face every day.

Proposals were also rolled out for judicial officers and bailiffs. A 3 percent retroactive raise for judicial officers, and 2 percent for bailiffs, was the bargaining position going back to October 2014. From there, annual raises of 7, 6, and 5 percent would be granted, in 2017, 2018, and 2019 respectively.

After a break, the police union negotiators and the city negotiators returned to the table to discuss pensions for corrections officers.

The scenario Zona outlined was just as dire as that on the police side: low pay, stressful conditions (including exposure to physical violence and health problems, including communicable diseases), and high turnover.

Zona noted that no corrections officers in Florida have 401K plans.

Duval has the third largest jail population in the state, but in terms of starting pay for corrections officers, the county is 54th in the state.

Leave benefits: even worse. 55th out of 67 counties.

Adult AIDS and tuberculosis cases can be found in jails, and the average correctional officer lives to be 58, dies soon after retirement, and suffers issues related to substance abuse and family dysfunction.

“They took a 3 percent pay cut, just like everyone else,” Zona said, and “they haven’t had a pay raise since 2008.”

Zona extended a proposal: 10 percent increases in FY 18 through 20, with a retroactive pay raise of 3 percent — exactly the same as police officers. And all new hires would go to FRS.

“The same proposal on the police side, for the people humping it every day in corrections,” said Zona.

The city came back with the same proposal for corrections that it had for police, which left Zona “disappointed.”

FRS, Zona said, is “pretty low risk” for the city. And the savings plan?

“You work thirty years. You’re beat up physically, you’re beat up mentally, and the market crashes. What happens to their savings when the market crashes?”

Curry, in a phone conversation Wednesday, took issue with Zona’s assertions on a number of fronts.

Regarding the FRS option, the mayor reiterated his opposition — despite what Zona saw as minimal risk to the city.

“We’d be ceding control to the state,” Curry said. “and FRS doesn’t guarantee a solution.”

Curry noted that the city offer was “deservedly generous,” pointing out the raises of 7 percent in the first year, 3.5 percent in the subsequent two years, and a 2 percent one time increase.

Officers, Curry said, “have been neglected with no raises for years.”

“They’ve earned this, they deserve this … real money for real people who get up and go to work every single day

“This mayor is putting real money on the table. Period,” Curry said.

Curry also noted that, contrary to Zona’s assertions, that collective bargaining would have to happen every three years per state law.

The glad tidings of August, the rosy projections — all seem to have faded with the realities of negotiation, and a familiar retrenchment of management and labor positions.

For his part, Zona is playing it cool, as evidenced by comments he made in a gaggle.

Regarding the Koch Brothers‘ Americans for Prosperity group taking an interest in pensions locally, Zona said “ask them where they’ve been at the last ten years.”

Zona also had a message for the mayor.

“We want him at the table. The room will be full of police and corrections officers who don’t agree with him.”

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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