The Jacksonville City Council is expected to ask voters whether they are willing to pay an additional half-cent sales tax to pay off the city’s pension obligation.
Councilman Bill Gulliford introduced a bill that would place the question on the city’s May election ballot. The higher tax rate would last 10 years with the money earmarked to reduce the nearly $1.7 billion debt in the Police and Fire Pension Fund.
“We have to do it now,” Gulliford said.
Mayor Alvin Brown, though, has promised to veto the bill if it makes it to his desk. If the veto occurs, a vote of 13 of the city’s 19 council members would be required to override it.
In an email, Brown’s Chief of Staff Chris Hand stated, “The Mayor has repeatedly said that he opposes tax increases. He supports the plan that former Council President Matt Carlucci and business leader Charlie Appleby have put forward to partner the City of Jacksonville with JEA to address the City’s pension funding obligations without increasing taxes or utility rates.”
Under that proposal, the city and the JEA utility would issue about $400 million of debt over 10 years. Supporters say it would be paid off over the years through increased property tax revenues.
The JEA is expected to approve the plan at its meeting Tuesday. Gulliford was not moved, saying the deal isn’t the best for the city of its residents.
“I would vote for it if I was on the JEA Board,” Gulliford said. “Why wouldn’t they? It substantially reduces their required contribution in the future.”
The deal would also allow the JEA full control over its pension plan and the city would assist the utility in developing its natural gas business.
Gulliford said there is no magic to solve what needs to be done.
He says the hardest part will be to convince voters the tax hike is necessary. He hopes some community leaders will get behind it.
“It’s sort of like slow cooking a lobster,” Gulliford said. “Are we are going to hand off to some future Council and Administration something really bad just like it has been handed off to us?”
To get on the May ballot the Council would have to override any veto by March 27.