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John Keane, administrator of the Police and Fund Pension Fund
Jax Daily Record Wednesday, May 7, 201412:00 PM EST

Little settled with pension, major obstacles include early retirement and fifth board member

by: David Chapman

The goal of the first day of talks between the city and Police and Fire Pension Fund was “getting things off the table.”

By day’s end, the table remained full.

The city laid out its proposal Tuesday morning in a prepared presentation, the majority of which matched recommendations from a task force Mayor Alvin Brown appointed last year.

Fund administrator John Keane came back in the afternoon with several prepared counters, mainly on the fund’s governance issues.

Prepared plans and statements were the start, but progress will mean putting them aside and talking, said Rod Smith, the former state senator who is moderating the discussions.

“We can’t just read things to each other,” he told the two sides.

He frequently interjected with a phrase to get both sides on track for future meetings.

“Put on your thinking caps,” he repeatedly said, referring to the need to compromise.

There were disagreements Tuesday over language in a proposed investment advisory group and the oversight it would have. Differences about how the fund should use the Office of General Counsel. And opposite points about whether new employees should be penalized if they retired five years early.

New hires seemed to almost be a done deal, but a disagreement on the formula used to determine the amount of benefits for new employees was a stumbling block.

On the governance side, there is an early stalemate over the long-debated fifth member of the fund’s five-member board of trustees. The city said the mayor’s office should appoint and City Council confirm that final member. Keane wants to keep the selection as it is now by having the board’s first four members appoint the fifth. It’s the way it is for pension boards across the state, he said.

It’s an issue Keane said afterward for which there would be no compromise.

Brown said that with the city putting up close to $154 million toward the fund in the coming fiscal year, taxpayers should have more representation and it wasn’t an “unreasonable” point.

One of the main differences between Brown’s proposal and the task force report was the length of pension benefits. Under Brown’s deal, changes would be in effect until September 2017 instead of 2028. Future benefit talks would head back to collective bargaining every three years.

Despite the early disagreements on myriad issues, both sides afterward said they remained optimistic about comprehensive pension reform.

Smith, too, said they seemed close on several points.

“The process is never about win or lose,” he said afterward. “No one gets everything they want, all the time.”

So, he asked both sides to find solutions they can accept.

They’ll get together again Thursday for a second round of talks and, if necessary, will continue for several days next week.

While the new hires and governance issues could soon enough be completed, the issue of benefit and contribution changes for current employees looms — and might require fitted thinking caps.

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