JACKSONVILLE, FL – Jacksonville has declared an impasse with the police union in the negotiations over changing officers’ pension benefits, citing the union’s refusal to talk.
This sends the issue to a special magistrate, who will hear from both sides and then issue a non-binding recommendation for what should be done. If either the city or the police union doesn’t like that recommendation, the issue is then sent to the City Council, which can impose changes for one year.
The council has had to step in to negotiations in the past, but it is unclear how its involvement would play out in this situation, in which the union says it is not allowed to negotiate pensions.
“It will end up in a lawsuit,” said Fraternal Order of Police local president Nelson Cuba. “It will be tied up in court.”
The city’s impasse declaration stems from a letter the union sent last week saying it wouldn’t engage in talks because the administration’s negotiating team had skipped a meeting.
City negotiators didn’t show up to that meeting, scheduled for the afternoon of Oct. 31, after Cuba led his team out of a meeting earlier in the day saying the talks were a waste of time. “Take me to court,” he said. “I’m done with this.”
The missed session was the fourth of nine meetings the two sides had agreed to have this year to discuss benefits. When it agreed to the meetings, the union continued to maintain — as it long has — that it is contractually barred from negotiating pensions. The police union, as well as the one representing firefighters, says an agreement reached a dozen years ago between the city and the organization that runs the pension fund supersedes the union’s bargaining rights.
The city disagrees, citing state law as well as a Florida Supreme Court case and a Public Employee Relations Commission case that both conclude pension funds are a mandatory subject of collective bargaining.
It does not appear either the courts or the commission have made a ruling in a situation like the one in Jacksonville, though, which appears to be unique among Florida cities. The union will ask the commission to weigh in on the situation, Cuba said.
In Mayor Alvin Brown’s proposed changes to the pension system, the administration would eliminate cost-of-living increases, drop the maximum pension from 80 percent of the average salary in the last two years to 50 percent of the five-year average and double employee contributions to 14 percent.
One of the biggest changes would be to have officers retire after 27 years of service but require them to wait until they turn 60 to receive a pension. They now can retire after putting in 20 years of service and immediately receive a pension.
The changes, which the administration says will save $1.5 billion over 30 years, are vital to balance the city budget, with declining market returns causing the pension system to cost more city dollars even with benefits being cut.
“Given the rapid increase in city pension-related costs and the overall financial situation of the city, sustainable retirement reform is imperative and delay is not an option,” the city said in its impasse letter.
Despite the impasse being declared, the two sides are allowed to negotiate while the magistrate process plays out.
“The city stands ready to resume negotiations over retirement benefits at any time and hopes that the FOP president and his negotiating team will rejoin us at the table,” the city’s letter said.
It seems unlikely that will happen, though. “It’s going to court anyway,” Cuba said.