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Bill Scheu chairs the Jacksonville Retirement Reform Task Force

Toughest decisions still ahead for retirement task force

By David Chapman, Staff Writer

It’s crunch time for the Jacksonville Retirement Reform Task Force.

And the most difficult work is still left to do: figuring out how to pay down the city’s $1.7 billion — and growing — unfunded liability and what a pension plan should look like for police and fire employees.

“Next week we hope we can do that,” said Bill Scheu, task force chair.

There are several options on the table for the group to chip away the liability. It could recommend a property tax hike. Or a sales tax increase. Or sell city-owned assets. Or bump up the JEA franchise fee. Or support an additional $40 million contribution from the utility.

It also could be a mix-and-match combination of those ideas to pay an additional $190 million-$210 million annually toward the problem.

Plan designs have been narrowed a bit more.

The group seems to have settled on either a defined benefit plan — similar to the one currently in place but with contribution and benefit changes — or a hybrid plan that combines elements of a traditional pension and a 401(k) plan.

How such a plan would impact recruitment and retention of police officers and firefighters also needs additional review, the group decided. But, it did hear anecdotally from two public safety leaders about their preferences. .

“We are losing police officers for the first time in Jacksonville and it’s because of this issue,” Undersheriff Dwain Senterfitt told the task force. “If they find an opportunity, they’re leaving.”

He said officers could look at surrounding counties that have defined benefit plans for employment if faced with a 401(k) decision.

Senterfitt said he didn’t have enough information on a hybrid plan to determine how it would affect recruitment or retention, but said there would be unintended consequences.

Randy Wyse, firefighters union president, was more definitive when asked about the difference between a defined benefit and hybrid plan on rank-and-file.

“Huge impact,” Wyse said.

Most recruits come from other departments but a recent class of 36 had only four such transplants, which shows the recruitment impact affected by uncertainty, he said.

Scheu said he thought Senterfitt and Wyse were skeptical and preferred the defined contribution plan.

One of the larger concerns that emerged Wednesday was about a hybrid plan that revolved around younger public safety employees who died in the line of duty. Under such a plan, spouses and families would only receive life insurance policies and what’s accrued in retirement accounts instead of benefits for life.

In response, the task force will review possible insurance options that could supplement the plan for lengthier payments for surviving members.

The group will meet at 1 p.m. Tuesday, with Scheu saying he hoped half of that meeting would be devoted to coming up with a recommendation for a plan and the other half for determining funding for the liability.

The group also would like to hear from union heads about their opinions on the work done so far. Scheu said he’s asked before for such feedback, but they declined.

That won’t stop him from asking again, though, as the group begins its push toward helping solve the problem that’s plagued Jacksonville for years.

dchapman@baileypub.com

@writerchapman

(904) 356-2466

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