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Jacksonville Rep. Leads Workshop To Examine Pension Problem

Peter Haden

State and local officials and public watchdogs gathered at Jacksonville City Hall yesterday to see what can be done about the city’s pension debt. Presenters from Florida TaxWatch and the Florida League of Cities put Jacksonville’s problem in the context of a statewide pension crisis.

Florida TaxWatch’s Robert Weissert came to Jacksonville City Hall in 2008 to raise the alarm. At that time, the City’s Police and Fire Pension fund’s unfunded liability was more than half a billion dollars. Weissert says that today "it stands at over 1.65 billion. It’s increased three-fold since we called for reform in 2008."

Statewide, the unfunded pension debt sits at $10.5 billion dollars. It’s been called a ticking time-bomb and drawn comparison to budget woes in Detroit.

Weissert says, "What we’re facing is a fiscal tsunami coming toward our state."

Cities are making promises today that cannot be paid tomorrow. For Jacksonville, there is a lot at stake, like a downgraded credit rating that would make it more expensive to borrow money for public works projects.

To pay down some pension debt, Council members Bill Gulliford and John Crescimbeni proposed a half-cent sales tax. But Rep. Janet Adkins (R-Fernandina Beach), who organized the workshop, has her doubts.

Adkins says, "I think it will be a difficult lift politically. I do not see the sales tax solution coming to fruition."

Others called for an amendment eliminating collective bargaining rights.

Adkins has asked Florida Gov. Rick Scott to launch a probe of the city’s First and Police Pension Fund.  But Fund Director John Keane says any rumors of that happening are just rumors.

Keane says, "They don’t know what they’re talking about. We have the answers to all of the questions that she raised in the letter to the governor. I was going to talk about them, but she said she didn’t want to talk about that."

Adkins says she’s exploring alternative methods of launching an investigation.

Peter Haden is an award-winning investigative reporter and photographer currently working with The Center for Investigative Reporting. His stories are featured in media outlets around the world including NPR, CNN en Español, ECTV Ukraine, USA Today, Qatar Gulf Times, and the Malaysia Star.