Council set to grapple with pension deal; move underway to scuttle it, 30-year agreement

JACKSONVILLE, FL – When city council resumes discussions on Mayor Alvin Brown’s proposed pension reform package on Monday, one council member says he will try to make significant changes to the deal — which could potentially kill it — and push forward an attempt to strike down the city’s current agreement outlining pension benefits for police and fire fighters.

City attorneys say council doesn’t have the legal authority to repeal the current pension agreement, and breaching the contract could have costly legal consequences.

Officials from Brown’s administration say changing the proposed deal and repealing the current pension agreement would undermine attempts to reform the city’s pension and pay off the $1.65 billion debt the city owes to it. They say Brown’s proposed deal, which an actuarial firm projects to save the city $1.49 billion over 35 years, is the city’s best chance at pension reform.

Still, Councilman Bill Gulliford said he wants to move forward on both issues when the council Rules committee meets on Monday.

“By doing that, we can hopefully establish the will of the Council,” Gulliford said. “I think it’s important that we let all parties know what we think.”

A majority of the committee simply needs to vote on the bill that would repeal the current pension deal in order for the full council to vote on it at its Nov. 25 meeting.

Changing the pension bill would require a majority vote of the seven-person committee, and those changes could later be reversed.

Gulliford’s proposed changes include shortening Brown’s pension deal from 10 to 3 years and reducing yearly pension increases for current employees.

Both of those concepts were rejected by the Police and Fire Pension Fund when Brown negotiated his proposed deal earlier this year. If the deal is changed and passed by council, the pension fund’s board would need to approve the revised deal.

Last week, Gulliford and Councilmen Matt Schellenberg and John Crescimbeni introduced a bill seeking to terminate the 30-year agreement. They say the agreement is “illegal and unenforceable” because state law says pensions are a subject of collective bargaining, and collective bargaining agreements cannot establish benefits for longer than three years.

The pension fund and the Mayor’s Office have said the negotiations were not collective bargaining because the pension fund isn’t a bargaining agent for the unions. The pension fund has repeatedly said the existing contract is valid and ensures benefits that can only be changed through mutual agreement by the city and the pension fund’s board.

But advocates of striking the deal down have said a recent appellate court decision in a lawsuit between Times-Union Editor Frank Denton and the city and pension fund could be used in their favor. That ruling upheld a previous decision stating that the city and the pension fund engaged in collective bargaining when they attempted to negotiate new pension benefits in closed-door court mediations in 2013.

City General Counsel Jason Gabriel said that ruling applied specifically to the 2013 mediations and the state’s open government law, and that the judge didn’t strike down the current pension agreement.

Gabriel said the council cannot repeal the agreement, but it could choose to breach it. But he said that would likely trigger a legal action from both the pension fund and the two unions representing police and fire fighters.

Councilman Stephen Joost, a member of the Rules committee, said pursuing that route would be a lengthy and costly endeavor and delay pension reform.

“We have an agreement now that we can agree on. It’s a compromise,” Joost said. “I think that’s what we should be debating. If you’re for the Mayor’s bill or against it, that’s what we should debate first.”

Joost also said that the proposed pension deal would be “dead” if Gulliford’s amendments pass.

Bill Scheu, who served as chairman of the pension reform task force and a support of Brown’s proposed deal, said trying to kill the 30-year agreement is a step in the wrong direction.

“I think Jacksonville has a history of forming a circular firing squad and shooting itself, while other cities move forward,” Scheu said on Friday. “I think this is another example of this.”

The council Finance committee will discuss the bill on Tuesday. Both committees must “move” the bill with a majority vote — it doesn’t matter if it passes or fails — before it can go before the full council for approval.

The Rules committee meets at 9 a.m. in City Hall.

Christopher Hong: (904) 359-4272