National politics, political legacies, & the Jacksonville pension debate

pension reform (Large)

Steve Zona, the head of the Jacksonville branch of the Fraternal Order of Police, got some backup over the holiday weekend from leaders of the state and national FOP in the biggest debate his union has had in some time.

They conveyed a clear message: the FOP has support in what looks to be a protracted period of collective bargaining with the city of Jacksonville.

“President Zona, thanks for filling me in on the details of your pension issue, I agree it is an issue of national concern and the 325,000 members stand with our Brothers and Sisters in Jacksonville,” wrote Jay McDonald, National FOP Vice President on Zona’s Facebook page.

State FOP President Robert Jenkins, meanwhile, offered a similar message of support.

What this all means: perhaps for the first time in the Lenny Curry administration (unless one wants to count the professional opponents and proponents of expansion of the Human Rights Ordinance who came to Jacksonville earlier in 2015), the Republican mayor is going to face national pressure to cave on his unprecedented plan to move all newly hired Jacksonville city employees to defined contribution plans.

Curry has some national backup, of course: central among that, the Koch Brothers’ front group Americans for Prosperity, which has set up a landing page saying that it’s “time to fix Jacksonville” in the light of the $2.85 billion debt caused by the “broken pension system.”

The page is intended to generate emails of support of Curry’s plan; thus far, despite publicity for the page in local news outlets, the emails received haven’t broken the server.

One interesting email generated from the page: that of fire union head Randy Wyse, who sent the same four paragraph form email everyone else did. When we asked him about it, he said that he was unable to erase the pre-populated message from the website.

Wyse, like his public safety counterpart Steve Zona, does not support the defined contribution proposal.

The heads of the public safety unions, who did support the referendum to unlock revenue from a sales tax extension pending new plans for new hires, want different plans for those hires: specifically, inclusion in the Florida Retirement System.

Collective bargaining sessions last week (Tuesday for the fire and rescue workers, Wednesday for police, courthouse staff, and corrections) established the parameters of the debate well.

Tuesday’s session saw the Jacksonville Association of Fire Fighters far apart from the city’s negotiators.

Calling the current pension plan “arguably the worst defined benefit plan in the state of Florida,” Wyse noted that when Mayor Lenny Curry “proposed the half-cent sales tax, we were supportive.”

Wyse sold the deal on the “knife and fork club” circuit, and the union put in $60,000 to sell the referendum.

However, once the referendum had passed, the differences between management and labor were laid bare.

The city wanted to offer a 14 percent raise over the course of three future years (7 percent in FY 18, 3.5 percent in the next two fiscal years).

A proposal to move employees to the Florida Retirement System: rejected, as the city insists upon defined contribution and the bargaining on a local level.

After that Tuesday session, Mayor Curry had a press conference in the large conference room in his city hall suite; fire union head Wyse was there.

The press conference was brief, giving the media a few quotes to counterbalance the drama involving city negotiators earlier in the day.

Curry explained his aversion to FRS.

FRS is “out of the city’s control,” Curry said, saying the city “can’t control costs” under the state model.

“It would be very easy for me to travel that road,” Curry said, but that would be “ceding the control of costs to the state.”

Wednesday saw Steve Zona making the case for police, courthouse workers, and correctional officers.

Armed with PowerPoint presentations and a compelling narrative, the stark case was made: in terms of “real” dollars, the value of a police officer’s salary has gone down since the 1980s. And a 401K would expose those officers to major risk given inevitable market under-performance.

Correctional officers are particularly exposed to risk, Zona contended; the average C.O. dies at 58 years of age, with lives truncated by exposure to risks of violence in the cell block, and exposure to communicable diseases.

Meanwhile, Zona contended, the city bears little risk in embracing the FRS solution; employer contributions have gone up just 4.1 percent over the last 17 years.

When asked about that Wednesday, Curry 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.”

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Throughout the country, there have been pushes to move public safety workers — specifically new hires, who have no expectations of the future being guaranteed — into 401K plans.

The standard response from labor: mobilization.

An article in Law Enforcement Today from earlier this decade explains how the strategy played out in Illinois.

“Here in Illinois, these groups have been very successful blocking some legislation that would have been very harmful to both state and municipal pension plans.  These groups are only successful because they have united law enforcement officers and firefighters statewide.   Without that sort of strength our pension funds would have been ruined.  When detrimental legislation comes up these groups have been able to garner such huge support that the state legislators have had no choice but to stop and listen…

“During one such legislative push an Illinois State Representative was quoted, as saying all the representatives were receiving so many calls about the legislation that no one could make any outgoing calls from their office lines. If you are a young officer, do not make the mistake of thinking it will be fine just because retirement looks so far away to you,” the article advises.

Locally, politicians can expect a similar pressure.

We understand that there may be police officers showing up, as they tend to do when their interests are challenged, to council meetings and the like. And they may have wives and kids with them to illustrate the effects of potential benefit changes on real people.

That is a strategy that historically has worked with this current iteration of the city council, many of the members of which are politically pliable. That has been a condition the mayor’s office has enjoyed, as the “strong mayor” model (accentuated by persuasive senior staff members) has allowed the city council to trust what this mayor and his team has wanted to do.

Until now, this council hasn’t dealt with the real pressures exacted by organized labor. And in the only debate the current council faced that roiled the community — the one over the Human Rights Ordinance — most of the members of the council were unwilling to commit to a position one way or another on proposed legislation, even as council chambers teemed with passion on both sides. The LGBT community members who say legislation is needed to protect them, and members of churches and other advocates of limited government who caution against “unintended consequences.”

Will there come a point in the debate when the council steps up and takes the side of the police unions over the mayor?

For Curry, the commitment to defined contribution plans for new hires has many benefits.

It “takes the city out of the pension business,” creating a Jacksonville solution to a problem many cities will face going forward.

Being able to accomplish this solution, meanwhile, would write the mayor’s political ticket going forward.

During almost a year and a half in office, Curry’s word has been law in city hall.

But what is clear: the pension reform collective bargaining will be his toughest task yet.

 

 

 

 

 

 

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


One comment

  • Darren Holsey

    December 6, 2016 at 9:53 am

    Here is another example where union leadership continue to support candidates based on their own political views. It has always been known that Republicans, from an ideological standpoint ,do not support defined benefit plans or unions. But, they continue to support those candidates even after they tell them ” we love our law enforcement community “. Well Lenny Curry “pimped” the support from the unions and then retreated back to his political roots. Whether you are liberal or conservative, sometimes in the public safety community you have to be sure you are supporting candidates that support your cause. I dont know how many times this lesson has to be relearned. This is my opinion and I am a retired Law Enforcement Officer.

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