Jacksonville’s Frustrated Mayor: ‘We’ve Got to Get Out of the Pension Business!’

Jacksonville, Florida

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The mayor of Florida’s largest city continues to fume over fiscally troubled police and fire pensions and calls a possible $45 million miscalculation by an actuary “outrageous.”

Jacksonville Mayor Lenny Curry’s ongoing frustrations over the troubled state of his city’s police and fire pension program boiled over this week when a new analysis showed that costs could increase by approximately $44 million next year due to an apparent miscalculation.

Curry and other officials at Jacksonville City Hall say that the pension fund’s Atlanta-based actuary, Jarmon Welch, “improperly understated the city’s true pension costs for years, until deciding to correct his math this time as he’s heading out the door,” as the Florida Times-Union reported Wednesday.

Welch, whose contract working with the pension fund concludes this year, told the newspaper that his reports have been above board and approved by state regulators.

Curry’s general counsel is beginning an investigation into the matter and state regulators are looking into the situation as well, according to the Times-Union.

The mayor told a recent gathering of local media that he’s “frustrated” with members of the pension board and the current fiscal situation, which will now involve an examination of a verbal agreement Welch reportedly made with a state actuary regarding a waiver that had allowed the city to make lower payments to the pension fund.

According to the Florida Politics news blog:

“It’s outrageous … I’ve asked my general counsel to look at this. Was it intentional? Is it a mistake or was it intentional? If it was intentional, what was the purpose? Who knew it was being done in an incorrect way? Why was it being done in an incorrect way? Were they trying to conceal how bad the pension crisis really is?”

The Jacksonville Police and Fire Pension Fund currently has $2.85 billion in debt.

Curry, who is among the few Republicans mayors of a major U.S. city, has regularly criticized the pension fund’s board for not being very transparent about Jacksonville’s pension-related headaches.

The mayor has been very vocal in his desires to shift new city employees to a 401(k)-style retirement system and away from the pension program. That’s something that municipal unions have opposed, but has attracted the support of the Florida branch of Americans for Prosperity, which is connected to conservative political activism funded by the billionaire Koch brothers.

The mayor said he’s not interested in “hugs and kumbayas” when dealing with Jacksonville’s pension challenges, the Times-Union reported. But one member of the pension board said that Curry “needs to deal with facts and not politics.”  

Curry’s views are clear: “We’ve got to get out of the pension business! That’s what I’ve been saying with pension reform,” the mayor said, according to Florida Politics. “We’re going to honor the obligations we have to existing employees, existing policemen, and firemen. I told them in the campaign: I believed they were promised those, earned those. But we’ve got to get new employees out of the pension business.”

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Michael Grass is Executive Editor of Government Executive's Route Fifty and is based in Seattle.

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