By Michael Hallett
The past few weeks have served up a witches’ brew of stories documenting the neoliberal shell game that has become Jacksonville’s “consolidated” government. Undertaken in 1968 in the name of achieving “economies of scale” in delivery of services across city/county governments, today the city features among the nation’s lowest paid teachers working in failing schools, unsupported police officers amid state-high violence, cuts to social programs for the poor, and massive unfunded pension liability caused in no small part due to the city’s own borrowing against the pension fund. To my criminal justice students who want to serve Jacksonville, my message is this: don’t. Move on. Jacksonville can’t keep its promises. Look elsewhere. Move south. Move west. Jacksonville refuses to establish a tax base sufficient to meet the needs of its citizens. Just look at millage rates in other large Florida cities:
Say what? That’s right. Don’t even consider it. Why? Because, you have become the new public school teachers of Duval County–in short, the new overburdened, underpaid, scapegoats for a dramatic series of political and economic failures in the ecosystem that is Jacksonville politics. Each of these far pre-dated your arrival here and it is too late to fix them now. You deserve better, so look elsewhere. Jacksonville has become a hollowed out shell of neoliberal “tax-cutting” debt, effective only in catering to those with deep-enough pockets to make campaign contributions but lacking civic engagement enough to foster real accountability through local on cycle elections. And look, you don’t need it. There are still plenty of jurisdictions solvent in their dealings with employees and credible in their promises. Jacksonville’s neoliberal political culture promised “tax cuts would shrink government,” and people ate it up with a spoon. Lots of people gamed the low-tax promise system, including the cops for a long time, but that game is now over. And no one has the courage to step up and change it, so, it is what it is.
But in this instance, rather than fully investigate why Jacksonville can’t keep its promises and the broad scope of the unfunded liabilities that are Jacksonville city politics and the neoliberal ideology that created them, the Times Union has curiously chosen simply to scapegoat the head of the Police and Fire Pension Fund and leave it at that, with what one prominent citizen and even critic of PFPF has called “tabloid” journalism.
Yet the largest failure of the community conversation as a whole about Jacksonville’s “pension debt,” has been a complete and utter lack of exposition of those on the other side of the table from John Keane during those negotiations. I mean, wait a minute: there are signed contracts. (Jax Police _ Fire Pension Fund001 (2))Who signed them and why? What was their thinking at the time? (Jax Police _ Fire Pension Fund001 (1)) We’ve got literally nothing on this aspect of the crisis from the Times-Union–yet multiple mayors and past council presidents have signed off on agreements. “But how can this be?” you ask? I have no clue. But past agreements were in fact negotiated settlements of unfunded debt going back decades–all of which mounted into a fiscal crisis triggered by the Great Recession. Don’t like those benefits?? Well, where did they come from and why were they approved multiple times? Nada. My theory: If the TU would have fully explored these aspects of the crisis, it would have been much more difficult to demonize the participants.
Of course, a much more compelling explanation for the current crisis is the fact that the City of Jacksonville has chronically under-funded its overall civic infrastructure and operating budget with an inadequate millage rate–therein failing to pay for the promises made by elected officials over many years. The combination of already extremely low property taxation, a laissez-faire attitude about mounting pension debt, and the dramatic market crash of 2008, all exploded the unfunded liability. Had the City not lived on a knife-edge with pathologically-low millage rates across multiple decades, the crisis would be nowhere near as bad as it is today. Comparatively lower property values in Jacksonville also did not help and would justify a higher millage relative to the benefits promised. Just look at the record of cuts and the above graph produced by Jacksonville’s own mayor, John Peyton.
While the city’s PFPF pension liability is a whopping $1.65 billion, the General Employees Pension fund also has a liability of ~$400+ million (or more), while insolvency problems also exist with the Correctional Officers Pension Fund. In addition, a federal lawsuit involving employees excluded from participation in the city’s pension process has added potential liabilities of another $500 million. Needless to say, the city’s pension problems extend well beyond the PFPF. Yet where is the coverage on the problem as a whole? $400 million here, $500 million there, pretty soon you’re talking about a lot of money. While the Times-Union repeatedly characterizes Jacksonville’s “pension crisis” as that of the $1.65 billion Police and Fire Pension Fund–it clearly extends well beyond that, involving a lot more money than that. It’s more like a near $2.5 – 3.0+ billion dollar pension liability, not $1.65 billion. All three funds are insolvent, not just the PFPF. THAT is the story. Or at least it should be. But no. Also, the average pension received by a retired member of PFPF is only about $50,000 (Jax Police _ Fire Pension Fund001 (2)).
Meanwhile, a new proposal (fully negotiated in the sunshine??) has emerged involving further leveraging debt with JEA, which has it’s own unfunded pension liability (largely unexplored by the Times-Union) as part of the General Employees fund, in hopes of securing a “funding source” for a $400 million gap to secure the deal. Borrowing from Peter to pay Paul.
Finally, amid much gnashing of teeth about securing a “funding source” why can’t local leaders embrace the obvious answer–a millage increase? For the same reason we are in this crisis in the first place: the neoliberal lie that tax cuts shrink government. Good government shrinks government. Unfortunately, that’s not what we’ve got here.
I urge Jacksonville’s leadership to look at the data (if not the news coverage) and responsibly raise the city’s millage rate. Cops and teachers form the fabric of what is real community. If you want to have community, you need to support it.