The city of Jacksonville guaranteed the pensions of employees of the local utility ahead of a potential sale with a 16-3 vote.
If the utility is “recapitalized” within the next three years, or sold for more than $3 billion as the legislation targets, pensions will be guaranteed.
The expected financial impact: $129 million, if a recapitalization goes through.
Council President Scott Wilson said this was the last bill that wouldn’t be fully vetted by the Council regarding the sale of JEA.
“I don’t know what that means,” Wilson said, but it will happen.
This legislation was a policy goal of Mayor Lenny Curry, a precondition to a privatization of the municipally owned utility.
Public interest was peaked in what was a packed City Council chambers, with numerous citizens having their say.
Some opposed the added impact to the city’s unfunded pension liability (which is well over $3 billion), a number which continues to mount for a defined-benefit plan closed to new hires three years ago.
Council members expressed similar concerns, with Councilwoman Randy DeFoor wondering whether the $3 billion sales proceeds would be eroded by this commitment.
Brenda Priestly-Jackson said the bill was nothing short of a “precursor to a sale.”
Council Vice-President Tommy Hazouri was “concerned” about the Council’s lack of “input” on JEA’s exploration of privatization.
“All we get to do is dot the Is and cross the Ts,” lamented Hazouri, who added that JEA liaison Danny Becton couldn’t handle the burden of cluing the entire Council in on the process.
The agenda meeting ahead of Council showed fissures on the body, even among presumptive allies, with an attempt to re-refer the bill to committee proving fruitless.
Rules Committee members Joyce Morgan, Matt Carlucci and Brenda Priestly-Jackson contended the Rules Committee should have been a committee of reference.
Finance was the sole committee of reference.
Priestly-Jackson thought the bill should have also been pushed to Transportation Energy and Utilities also. Others agreed, calling the reference process “cherrypicking” to engineer a desired result.
“Something that has hundreds of millions of dollars of impact should go to more than one committee,” Priestly-Jackson said.
“The union leaders want this passed tonight, I get it,” Carlucci said. “If we can get it referred back to Rules, we can make whatever changes we need to make.”
Some allies of Mayor Curry, including Rory Diamond and LeAnna Cumber, took the opposite view.
But others broke with their political patron. Randy DeFoor, who emerged from the Curry political machine, pushed for re-referral, saying Rules asked more questions than Finance.
DeFoor was the sole no vote in Finance.
Chief Administrative Officer Brian Hughes took the counter-position, saying the “level of certitude” is necessary for the JEA employees.
“Promises made to those employees … this bill addresses those promises,” Hughes said.
IBEW union head Valerie Gutierrez, who opposes “recapitalization,” said the legislation at least protected employees in the event of a sale.
Councilman Al Ferraro, a Curry ally and potential mayoral candidate in 2023, said that while he supported the pension carveout, he did not support the sale of JEA.
Council President Scott Wilson, as agenda wrapped, said he would “pray” on whether the bill should be taken up or not.