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Rod Smith
Jax Daily Record Friday, May 9, 201412:00 PM EST

Moderator helps city, pension fund find common ground on pension issues

by: David Chapman

By afternoon Thursday, there was progress in pension talks between the city and Police and Fire Pension Fund.

Benefits and contributions for new hires had been hammered out, marking the first — albeit easiest — major step in comprehensive reform.

Next up was governance, a complex section with areas ranging from the board’s makeup to the fund’s leadership compensation to who provides legal advice to the organization.

Fund administrator John Keane had responded to more than a dozen points of a city proposal on how the fund should be run. There were many rejections, some “we’ll have to get back to you” stances and a couple of agreements like consensus on creation of a volunteer investment advisory board.

With so much outstanding, progress seemed stalled.

That’s when moderator Rod Smith — not the city, nor the fund — made a pitch to get past what he called the “governance quagmire.”

The mayor would drop his goal of trying to appoint the fifth member of the fund’s five-member board of trustees. The city also would drop the request to return to collective bargaining for future benefits — the issue still has to be resolved in the courts, anyway.

The fund would have to agree to the city’s language on how its next administrator would be hired, how the person would be compensated and how he or she would fit into the retirement plan. Instead of a senior level pension fund, the administrator would be shifted to the General Employees’ Pension Fund or a 401(A) plan.

Also part of the compromise was language about the fund’s use of the Office of General Council. Smith crafted that, too.

With the new proposal in front of them, both sides needed a break.

Twenty-five minutes later, the results: Keane was OK with the changes, if the mayor’s pursuit of appointing that fifth member was dropped. Keane has long said he would not compromise on that point.

Brown wasn’t quite ready to concede the point, though.

With an estimated $154 million in taxpayer dollars heading into the fund next year, Brown says the mayor’s office should have board representation. Currently the fire and police unions each elect a member, City Council appoints two and those four people appoint that final member.

Although Keane approved with that condition, Brown needs more time. He will take the weekend to consider Smith’s proposal before returning Monday in what’s scheduled to be the final week of talks.

Smith said he wanted to wrap up the governance issues before both sides delve into the two largest, and likely most contentious issues: how current employees’ contributions and benefits will be altered and how to handle

the massive unfunded liability owed.

Still, progress was made Thursday, both Brown and Smith said.

But it was Smith’s proposal that served as the jolt needed to jumpstart compromise.

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