Jacksonville Bold for 2.14.24: Pension tension

Main Street Bridge at Sunset, Jacksonville, Florida.
Will Jacksonville's pension plan help fund the new stadium?

Seven months into the Donna Deegan administration, we finally have some clarity about one potential mechanism to fund renovations for the municipal stadium.

At its core, it’s a simple fund transfer, structured as a loan to the city from its $5 billion in pension fund assets to defray some undetermined portion of the costs of the stadium rebuild.

How much will be financed this way?

How much will the project cost?

No one knows yet, including the chief negotiator for the city — Mike Weinstein, who we spoke with last week.

Weinstein briefed City Council President Ron Salem about it, who noted he had questions about the math of the pension funding mechanism — questions that certainly will have to be answered about this and other financing options should the deal go forward.

Will Donna Deegan’s financing plan pass muster with the City Council?

Vice President Randy White? Finance Chair Nick Howland? They learned about the possibility from the print press.

No one is saying “no” just yet. But the Deegan administration will have to get them to yes, amid a confrontational climate where Salem saw exactly what the Mayor’s Office thinks of him in a recent memo and where Howland and the Mayor’s Office are battling over a transparency bill he filed after Deegan inked a contract with a lobbying firm — a deal without an open bidding process.

The stadium deal was always going to be Deegan’s real test. Removing the Women of the Southland monument was a promise she’d made to her base, delivered in an unorthodox way that spent much of her political capital and that of the new General Counsel.

But the stadium negotiations, which the Lenny Curry administration didn’t launch after the failure of Lot J to pass, are something that would require the Mayor to manufacture consensus, work media relationships, and perhaps use a political machine outside of the office to drive a narrative and put pressure on Council and voters to see things her way.

You know, like we saw during last decade’s pension reform push. Curry got 65% of the vote in a referendum to stop new defined benefit plans for city employees, closing a financial sinkhole of a retirement scheme, with a future half-cent sales tax paying the debt off.

That tax will be repurposed around 2027 from the Better Jacksonville Plan, the great infrastructure splash of the turn of the century that the city is still paying off. Mayor John Delaney tirelessly built consensus for that, which paid dividends, just as Curry’s push did.

Now it’s Deegan’s time to pull all the levers — and she’s going to have to do so without a political machine outside of City Hall, with an adversarial City Council, and with a financing scheme that at its heart is ultimately regressive, benefiting the Khans — who are worth upward of $12 billion at this writing. And the NFL — the ultimate Billionaires’ Boys Club, which expects more per capita from small markets than from first-tier global cities.

The deal is supposed to be ready this Summer, per Weinstein, which suggests a strategic drop in late June around the time of a Council break and a change of leadership from Salem to White.

Salem has anticipated running the whole deal process, and there are ways he can have a heavier hand in it. But his comments on the potential pension financing might incentivize the administration to slow-walk it.

“I am concerned that we are negotiating raises at the same time as this issue has surfaced. In addition, I want to understand the cost savings of borrowing from the pension fund vs borrowing the money in a traditional fashion. There is significant work that needs to be completed if this is truly an alternative,” the Republican At-Large Council member said.

White may be an easier partner, but he has the deepest connection to and understanding of the city’s historic pension woes of any of these players.

The former Fire and Rescue Administrator takes a wait-and-see approach as he researches the proposal. He is curious about what the Police and Fire Pension Board, the Fraternal Order of Police and the Jacksonville Association of Fire Fighters think.

Those unions are currently negotiating with the city. If history is precedent, they are taking every loose quote and policy statement under consideration as part of their negotiations — held at a time when public safety is a less appealing career to many people than it was in previous decades, suggesting big raises are in the offing.

White may want a quid pro quo of his own, meanwhile. We understand that he sees the Florida Retirement System as a viable pension option for public safety employees. That is a position unions have embraced before, one that the Curry administration rejected in its pension and labor negotiations last decade.

With a guaranteed income stream at an above-market rate of return, the administration may have a path if the numbers work out. Recent estimates are that the city has $3.6 billion in pension debt, the seventh-highest municipal burden in the country, and using debt service to pay down the legacy pension obligation has a certain mathematical elegance.

Some skeptical voices exist, including people who have been high up in city leadership in appointed and elected capacities.

One former Democratic official was blunt, saying he didn’t favor using pension funds for stadium finance.

A Republican questioned its politics, contending that the administration’s comms team should handle the messaging and that using Weinstein quotes to lead off “wasn’t the way to a win.” They noted that in the previous mayoral administration, Weinstein wasn’t talking to the press and suggested not everyone in the Mayor’s Office understands the political or policy implications of the proposal.

The stadium negotiations have been opaque and out of the public eye these last few months. But we expect the issue will be dominant in local politics going forward, perhaps for the remainder of Deegan’s term.

Code violation

Attorney General Ashley Moody is trumpeting the Jacksonville bust of Edrey Santo Rojas: a baddie who spent seven months buying wire with barcodes that made it cheaper than it should have been, only to return the material to big box hardware stores with a receipt suggesting he paid full price.

“This thief stole more than $28,000 worth of wire rolls from home-improvement stores throughout 15 counties in a fraudulent barcode scheme. He committed more than 70 different thefts, crossing multiple judicial circuits. Thanks to law enforcement and our Statewide Prosecutors, his spree is wired shut, and now he faces multiple felony charges.”

A wire scam ensnares a Northeast Florida man.

He pulled this scam off 78 times and will get four counts for his trouble: two counts of individually committing or coordinating with others the commission of retail theft $3,000 or more, a second-degree felony; one count of individually committing or coordinating with others the commission of retail theft 20 or more items, a second-degree felony; and individually committing or coordinating with others the commission of retail theft $750 or more, a third-degree felony.

He’s already in custody for burglary, casing a construction joint and three grand-theft-level credit card scams.

Deathcare fixes

CFO Jimmy Patronis illustrated the need to reform the funeral home industry with a story about a Jacksonville facility that had gone horribly wrong when an undertaker abandoned his obligations and left bodies to rot along with his broken contracts.

“Following the alarming findings at the Marion Graham Mortuary in Jacksonville, my team immediately began working with our legislative partners to amend our DFS agency bill and give the state enhanced oversight over the deathcare industry. When a family member passes, Floridians must be able to rest assured their loved ones are treated with the utmost dignity and respect,” Patronis said.

The CFO told the Senate Appropriations Committee he is backing SB 1098, which gives the Department of Financial Services more oversight into pre-need contracts.

Jimmy Patronis seeks more scrutiny of funeral homes. Image via CFO Press Office.

“Through these reforms, if a funeral home in our state is abandoned, we’ll have the power to immediately go in and investigate. My office will also have further oversight over pre-need contracts to ensure consumers aren’t taken advantage of when planning funeral services. No one in our state should go through what these families had to endure, and we will do everything in our power to ensure the perpetrators are held accountable, and the law is changed so this never happens again in Florida.”

Quite a coincidence

Who says love and politics don’t mix?

Sen. Clay Yarborough and his wife told how the Jacksonville Republican used a seating arrangement to arrange a courtship.

Sen. Yarborough “conveniently knew” the organizer of a Christian group’s dinner in Jacksonville that his yet-to-be-wife Jordan and her parents were attending, and he asked his friend that “maybe with the seating arrangements there could conveniently be (seated together) at the main table.”

Jordan “suspected something,” given that the two were seated together despite being in a room of a few hundred people.

To watch the video, please click the image below.


Custody battle

Meanwhile, as you read this on Valentine’s Day, the Florida Senate will be contemplating what happens when love goes horribly wrong as it mulls Yarborough’s legislation that would govern how divorced parents hand their children off to each other during split custody scenarios.

SB 580 is on the Special Order calendar, where it will likely be substituted with the identical measure passed by the House (HB 385).

The bill is referred to as the Cassie Carli Law to honor Cassie Carli, a 37-year-old Navarre woman who vanished in March 2022 following the scheduled exchange of her preschool-aged daughter, only to be found in a grave in Alabama weeks later.

Peaceful custody hand-offs are a priority of Clay Yarborough.

The legislation would require court-approved plans for shared custody to include (unless otherwise agreed to by both parents) a list of “designated authorized locations” to exchange custody of their children. Estranged parents can opt-out with a written waiver, however, should they be able to work things out more amicably.

In cases where parents provide evidence that they or their child may be at risk of harm, a court may require the parents to exchange in the parking lot of a county Sheriff’s Office.

Hillsdale Blues

Gov. Ron DeSantis has extolled Michigan’s Hillsdale College as a conservative mecca, going so far as to gut New College in Sarasota to create what his coterie calls “the Hillsdale of the South.”

As for the Hillsdale of Duval, however, it’s a different matter, as key supporter John Rood has apparently deviated from the Governor’s educational preference for “cultural” reasons.

Jacksonville Classical Academy is moving away from the Hillsdale group. Image via Facebook.

“Jacksonville Classical Academy is no longer part of the Hillsdale network, not for ideological reasons, but more for management ones. When Rood asked parents why they were pulling students out of the school, he realized the school’s culture needed a change,” writes Mike Clark in Jacksonville Today.

The DeSantis administration has spotlighted JCA more than even the best traditional schools in the city.

In 2020, the Governor and then Secretary of Education Richard Corcoran held a press event at the school. Three years later, Lt. Gov. Jeanette Nuñez spoke there to highlight school choice.

If he shows up again, it would be an excellent time to ask him about the Hillsdale disassociation.

Uncanny alliance

Rep. Jessica Baker doesn’t usually vote with Democrats, but when it came to a bill raising the pay for the Governor, she was one of just three Republicans to join in.

Of course, there is context: DeSantis worked to submarine her bid for House leadership last year.

But someone close to her described the vote as “funny,” especially given the person DeSantis favored — Rep. Jennifer Canady — “took a walk” and didn’t vote.

Jessica Baker reaches across the aisle to nix a raise for the Governor.

Local Republicans were on the other side of this issue, but Democrats balked.

Notable was Rep. Angie Nixon, who suggested that DeSantis proved in 2023, with his heavy travel schedule, that being Governor was a “part-time job.”

The raises don’t go into effect until 2027, when DeSantis will be term-limited, though there is already some speculation First Lady Casey DeSantis may run for his job.

Excusable neglect

Jacksonville’s Director of Boards and Commissions Garrett Dennis wants a court to vacate a looming default judgment against his contracting business, seeking an evidentiary hearing and explaining his delay in filing motions.

“Defendant’s delay to file responses with the court in this action amounts to excusable neglect,” reads the 4th Judicial Circuit filing from the defendant’s lawyer.

“As established by the Affidavit of Averrell Thompson, Esq. in support of defendant’s Motion to Vacate Default, the failure to file any paper in this action was due to the length of time needed for defendant to acquire the appropriate legal representation and due to not understanding the legal deadlines of litigation.”

Garrett Dennis and Donna Deegan, 2022
Garrett Dennis endorses Donna Deegan. Image via Deegan campaign for Mayor.

Dennis was a two-term City Council member who chaired the Finance Committee for one year, seemingly contradicting the claim that he didn’t understand the law.

The evidentiary hearing is slated for March 1, per someone connected with this legal action.

At issue, as Bold reported last week, is an alleged failure to pay at least one subcontractor via his Shifting Gears construction company, which owes McCurdy-Walden, Inc. $80K for a reroof of the BCBS building at 532 Riverside Avenue.

Here’s language from the plaintiff’s lawyer’s demand letter in the ongoing legal action that alleges the sub has been stiffed for months.

“To date and despite repeated demand. Shifting Gears has failed and refused to pay McCurdy-Walden for the work it performed. To make matters worse, we also understand that Florida Blue has paid Shifting Gears in full for McCurdy-Walden’s work. Please allow this letter to serve as McCurdy-Walden’s demand that the total of $77,624.00 be paid to it within five business days of the date of this letter.”

Waters whoopsie

The Tributary reports that Jacksonville’s Sheriff is taking some heat for seemingly contradictory statements regarding a recent settlement.

T.K. Waters sends conflicting messages. Image via T.K. Waters.

Officer Josue Garriga “was invited to attend a May 30 meeting along with his attorneys, Sean Granat and Gaby Young, both of the city’s Office of General Counsel, before a $200,000 settlement … over a police shooting of a FAMU student.”

That is not what he said last year when he said he would have pushed this case to trial.

“While JSO is bound by this settlement agreement, I am deeply disappointed by the outcome of this litigation and JSO’s lack of proper notification by our attorneys,” Waters said in November.

Legislation is now moving to allow the City Council to mediate disagreements between the city’s lawyers and chief law enforcement officer over settlements, seemingly flouting the old warning about too many cooks in the kitchen ruining the meal. The bill previously imagined more robust veto power for the Sheriff.

Falling prices

Home sale prices in the six-county Northeast Florida region took a tumble in January, reflecting state trends, according to a report by the Northeast Florida Realtors Association (NEFAR).

While figures declined, NEFAR officials say the modest decrease in home prices shows signs of a stabilizing market, which saw the cost of homes skyrocket in 2023.

The median sale price for a home was $375,000 in the entire Northeast Florida region, a drop of 2.2% compared to December. The number of days a house was on the market increased to 56, a jump of 24.4% over the previous month. Inventory also increased to 5,638 homes, up by 22.1%.

Home prices in NE Florida felt a chill in January.

Those signs point to a more buyer-friendly market where 2023 mainly favored sellers. The monthly price decrease is a good indicator for a market that needed a cool down, said NEFAR President Rory Dubin.

“During a typically sluggish January, we have seen the market stabilization continue with (a) significant increase in new listings and inventory since December,” Dubin said.

The most significant percentage drop in Northeast Florida home sales prices was in Putnam County, which witnessed a 12.8% decline from December at a median price of $205,000 in January.

St. Johns County, one of the fastest-growing counties in Florida, also saw median home sales prices fall. The St. Johns median home sales price was $519,000 in January, a dip of 6.8% from December.

Duval County, with the largest population in Northeast Florida, including Jacksonville, also saw a fall in median home sales prices. Duval witnessed a 2.2% decline compared to December, dropping to $324,945 for the median home sale price.

Baker County also dropped median home sale prices to $266,750, a 7.7% decline compared to December.

Two Northeast Florida counties saw modest increases in median home sales prices. Nassau County, which saw a considerable increase in home sale prices in 2023, remained relatively flat in January. However, there was a 0.3% uptick in those prices compared to December, with the figure at $424,990.

Clay County also saw a bump in median home prices. Clay’s increase was more notable than Nassau’s, with the price jumping by 2.9% compared to December’s at $360,000.

What to do with Trevor?

The Jaguars offseason will boil down to some key questions. After failing to return to the postseason, 2024 will be a pivotal year for head coach Doug Pederson and his staff. The biggest question is what to do with the quarterback.

Will the Jaguars sign Trevor Lawrence to an extension or simply pick up his fifth-year option?

What’s next for Trevor Lawrence?

Entering his fourth season in the league, Lawrence has shown potential to be one of the top quarterbacks in the league. However, his injury-riddled second half of the 2023 season showed he needs better protection and a better understanding of playing in pain. As a first-round pick in 2021, the Jaguars have until May 2 to exercise Lawrence’s fifth-year option for 2025. The Jaguars must decide in the coming weeks (if they haven’t already) if they want to negotiate a long-term deal with Lawrence now or wait to see how Lawrence performs next season to make him a long-term offer.

There are pros and cons to each approach.

If the Jaguars offer Lawrence now and he continues on the upward trajectory shown at the end of the 2022 season and, at times in 2023, the Jaguars will benefit from long-term salary savings. In the short term, Lawrence would earn more on his new deal than he would under his rookie contract, but when compared to the going rate of quarterbacks in the future, the deal could look like a bargain.

For example, when Patrick Mahomes signed his second contract with the Kansas City Chiefs, the 10-year, $450 million deal seemed preposterous. The largest deal in NFL history was structured to allow for greater flexibility in the future. Because the Chiefs locked Mahomes into a long-term deal, they can borrow against the “Bank of the QB” by restructuring the deal to give Mahomes a new signing bonus and reallocating money under the salary cap in important years.

Everybody wins.

That is if Mahomes plays at an elite level and there is no sign of slowing down anytime soon.

In retrospect, signing the best player in the NFL to a 10-year deal was anything but preposterous. It was genius.

For the Jaguars to make a similar decision with Lawrence, they must ask tough questions. More to the point, they must answer with their heads and not their hearts. Is Lawrence going to be an elite quarterback in the NFL? You can make the case that he has genuinely played at an elite level for half a season. He has not been as consistent as Mahomes nor other peers like Cincinnati’s Joe Burrow or Josh Allen of the Bills.

If the Jaguars decide they need more evidence before investing in a decadelong contract, they can simply exercise the fifth-year option. That move would lock in Lawrence for the 2025 season at around $22 million and assess Lawrence’s value after the 2024 season.

There are two potential pitfalls to this approach.

First, Lawrence’s salary cap would nearly double from 2024 to 2025. That also translates to almost 8% of the salary cap tied up in one player. For comparison, if the Jaguars allow Lawrence to play on his current salary, he will take up just over 4.5% of the salary cap for 2024.

The other danger is that if Lawrence has a breakout season, the cost to sign him for the entire term of the contract will go up. The Jaguars can get a “bargain” if they sign Lawrence to a new deal this offseason. With the salary cap expected to increase yearly, even a monster deal (like Mahomes) can be looked at positively down the road.

The Jaguars and Lawrence are both on the clock as the offseason opens.

Staff Reports


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