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City Council member Garrett Dennis and Kerri Stewart, Mayor Lenny Curry's chief of staff, sold the merits of the mayor's pension plan to about two dozen people at a Jacksonville Young Democrats meeting Wednesday.
Jax Daily Record Thursday, Aug. 4, 201612:00 PM EST

City officials, Andy Johnson share pros and cons of Mayor Lenny Curry's pension plan

by: David Chapman

While thousands flocked Downtown to see a presidential hopeful rallying support for his November election, a decidedly more intimate group wasn’t far away being rallied on the pros and cons about an issue voters will decide this month.

Even with Donald Trump in town, the selling of Mayor Lenny Curry’s pension plan went on, the latest stop being a group that isn’t exactly the Republican nominee’s base.

About two dozen people attended the Jacksonville Young Democrats meeting Wednesday evening to hear why they should — or maybe why they shouldn’t — vote to implement a half-cent sales tax to pay down the city’s massive pension debt, but also why they shouldn’t.

“It’s not the way to do business,” said Andy Johnson, a local radio show host and former state representative.

Johnson, a Democrat, was referring to dedicating what essentially will be an extension of the Better Jacksonville Plan sales tax to pay down $2.8 billion in unfunded pension liabilities.

The situation is not an emergency, he said, because the revenue wouldn’t arrive for years. Furthermore, money shouldn’t be locked in for pension or any other governmental purpose, he said.

Johnson had other reasons he said people shouldn’t support the initiative. It’s illegal as written on the ballot, which is the subject of a lawsuit. The last half-cent sales tax didn’t deliver on promises for certain communities. But maybe the most prevalent was Johnson’s labeling the tax as regressive.

Kerri Stewart, Curry’s chief of staff, says throughout the time selling the pension solution, the “regressive” description is a constant one she tries to dispel.

She began the latest pitch by laying out the city’s financial situation before hitting the plan’s highlights.

A recent report showed the city could save as much as $68 million in the next couple of budgets, but at the cost of spending millions more later as the length of paying back increases.

“The plan is not fun, it’s not dessert,” she told the group. “It’s vegetables … it’s broccoli and carrots.”

Curry, Stewart and Charles Moreland, the mayor’s community affairs director, have been meeting with many segments of the communities the past couple of months to sell the merits of the plan.

On Wednesday, the effort had a little help.

City Council member Garrett Dennis, a Democrat, told the political group he was in support of the mayor’s plan. His reasons?

“I see the numbers, I see the budget,” he told the group.

Dennis said the meeting was the third time he’s spoken to the community about the pension plan, the first two coming in his district that spans parts of West and Northwest Jacksonville.

Those meetings were well attended, he said. And while there are lingering sentiments about promises with the Better Jacksonville Plan not being met, people are warming to the latest pension fix.

For example, drainage problems still are bad in his area, but there aren’t enough resources to help.

“We have to do something,” Dennis later said. “The numbers don’t lie.”

Wednesday’s meeting offered two distinct vantages to the pension tax. And with the politically charged group, the tone at times was a little more critical, said Stewart.

The questions, though, follow the patterns of other community meetings. And one always crops up: What will you spend any budget savings on?

Stewart told the group Curry’s priorities have been public safety and neighborhood infrastructure, which she said is expected to continue.

The questions are OK, though. The different tones, too, she said.

It just means people are staying engaged on the way to Aug. 30.

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