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City Council President Clay Yarborough
Jax Daily Record Thursday, Jan. 1, 201512:00 PM EST

Pension, JEA deal and capital projects key issues for council

by: David Chapman

Six months down, six months to go in the final year for most City Council members.

Term-limits and political decisions ensure the next group of 19 will mostly be new in July. Several members face challengers, which could mean more new faces. But there’s still work to be done for the current group, said council President Clay Yarborough, one of those leaving the office after June.

The single biggest issue, he said, is a familiar one: paying for pension reform.

But there are several others. Figuring out the capital improvement plan. Getting a head start on key contract talks with JEA. Implementing the ideas of a group that thoroughly reviewed consolidation. And possibly bringing back a panel for an early look at the next budget.

First and foremost, though, is finding a long-term, sustainable funding source to complete pension reform.

“It’s the biggest thing this council needs to get accomplished before a new council comes in,” Yarborough said. “It’s the biggest priority.”

Council could know as early as next week whether the focus will shift to finding a way to pay up to $400 million over the next 10 years. That extra amount, or a present-day equivalent, is what’s been determined is needed to pay down the public safety pension liability of more than $1.65 billion.

If the Police and Fire Pension Fund board signs off on the agreement that was tweaked by council, the finding the money side of the deal could start in earnest.

If the board sends the deal back to council with changes of its own, it would mean more time spent on benefits and governance parts.

He said the “overwhelming” sentiment from council was that the deal approved is what it should entail. Coming back to council is legal, he said, “but council has already considered what options were on the table.” The changes passed by a 16-3 vote.

Before the end of the council year, Yarborough also wants to see results of the work analyzing Capital Improvement Plans of past and present. Council effectively put a halt on new spending this year until an in-depth review of old projects was conducted to figure out how much — if any — can be spent on new projects. Council member Lori Boyer has led those efforts.

“They’ve done an outstanding job peeling back layers of the onion,” Yarborough said. “We couldn’t afford not to do it.”

If legislation is needed, he said he hopes it’s filed by April or May to ensure the current council can act on it.

Another effort likely won’t be done by then, but Yarborough said he wants to form a subcommittee to look at the city’s expiring deal with JEA.

“I don’t want to wait. I think we can make some headway,” he said.

Council member Bill Gulliford has expressed an interest in undertaking that effort and said this week such meetings would be an opportunity to address any issues and find common ground between the two sides.

The utility would like its annual contributions to the city lowered — an idea floated as part of a pension funding solution — but Gulliford said that creates a “big hurdle” for the city on the revenue side. The utility is slated to give $111.7 million to the city next year, part of the annual $2.5 million increase.

“It’s time to take a look at it,” Gulliford said.

Another of Yarborough’s priorities over the next several months involves the idea Gulliford started and was undertaken by Boyer: a review of consolidation. Boyer led a task force reviewing the history of consolidation and what changes could be made to make it more effective. She’s met a few times with Gulliford on how to implement those ideas, and Yarborough said he wants to ensure they become a reality in the coming months.

Yarborough also said he is open to re-implementing an idea started last year that had council members taking an early look at city departments and their budgets. He headed that effort, which had department heads talking about their areas, revenue and expenditures. It led to more understanding by council members heading into the weeks of budget review later in the year.

This time could be trickier because of elections and replacements.

One possibility to serve could be the current council Vice President Greg Anderson, who is running for a second term and considered the favorite to retain his At-Large Group 4 seat. Anderson, a former Finance Committee chair, is in line to become the council’s next president.

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