Mayor Lenny Curry’s plan for Jacksonville residents to vote on a half-cent sales tax to pay off the city’s massive pension debt will be reviewed Monday by the City Council.
The council Finance Committee will discuss the legislation and must pass it before a final vote can be made.
While the review will serve as a first test, it’s not likely to be a tough one. Nearly every City Council member is supporting the plan, by far the highest priority for Curry in his first term in the mayor’s office.
“I think there will be some general discussion and maybe some specific questions, but when you think about it, it’s pretty straightforward,” said Councilman Bill Gulliford, chairman of the Finance Committee.
If the committee passes the legislation, the full council will be able to make a final vote May 10.
Doing so will clear the path for Curry and his political team to prepare for the vote Aug. 30, which will be held in conjunction with the primary elections for local and statewide races.
Curry says the sales tax is the best way to pay off the debt for the city’s three pension plans, which totals $2.87 billion, and would free up money to spend on other priorities by reducing the city’s yearly pension obligation payments.
His plan would ask voters to create a half-cent sales tax that would go into effect in 2030, when the voter-approved Better Jacksonville Sales tax ends. The city would then use the guarantee of that future sales tax revenue as a way to free up tens of millions of dollars now going to pay down the city’s pension debt.
Beyond the broad strokes, Curry’s office has released few other specific details about the plan.
Gulliford said he doesn’t expect to have those details before the council approves the plan and instead will wait to “get to the meat of the issue” until after the referendum passes.
“I don’t mind the generality because I don’t see other options out there,” Gulliford said. “If we can’t do something like this, the other options are very onerous. The idea of raising millage rates makes me scared.”
The special tax for the pension debt is the first of its kind in Florida and required Curry and other city officials to get approval from the Legislature and Gov. Rick Scott earlier this year.
In order to use the tax for pension debt, the new state law requires the city to increase the amount that employees pay to at least 10 percent of their paychecks. The city already has an agreement in place to phase in that increase to 10 percent for all police and firefighters, but the amount now is 8 percent for general employees and corrections officers.
The city will close at least one of its three current pension plans to any new hires if voters approve the half-cent sales tax. Curry said that will shut the door on pension problems biting future city leaders. For new hires, options are moving them into 401(k)-style plans, trying to get them into the Florida Retirement System, or creating brand-new pension plans.
Public-safety unions, which hold the lion’s share of the city’s pension debt, support Curry’s plan.
Christopher Hong: (904) 359-4272