THE PENSION PROBLEM During one of Pensacola Mayor Ashton Hayward’s recent public input sessions, the subject of pensions arose. City officials seemed to tense up. It’s an uncomfortable topic of conversation.
“I would say it’s safe to say, not doing anything is not an option,” said City Administrator Bill Reynolds.
City Councilwoman Maren DeWeese—seated on the front row with fellow councilman P.C. Wu—put it another way.
“This conversation has come to the point where Dr. Wu and I are already banging our heads against the wall,” she said.
In short, the city’s commitment to funding its employee’s pensions is taking an increasingly larger chunk out of the general fund, which pays for operational expenses. The commitment is expected to jump from $16 million this year to more than $18 million next year.
“Is it increasing exponentially?” asked a member of the audience at the mayor’s public meeting.
“Exponentially,” answered John Asmar, the mayor’s chief of staff.
Currently, the commitment already is more than the city receives in property taxes. City officials will be attempting to get a handle on the pension issue throughout the spring as they negotiate with the employee unions on new contracts.
A couple of days after the mayor’s public meeting, city council heard from David Penzone, who chaired the mayor’s pension advisory committee. He laid out the basic landscape for council and informed them that the city of Pensacola was trumped only by Orlando when it came to its mounting pension commitment.
“Unfortunately, Pensacola is in a horse race that we really don’t want to win,” Penzone told the council.
Penzone said the city should look at various ways to reduce the pension commitment, starting with restructuring the plans employees were offered from this point forward.
“There’s a lot of different ways to skin this cat,” he said.
Councilwoman Megan Pratt cautioned her fellow council members to remain strong during upcoming negotiations with the unions. She noted how hearing “personal stories” often injects emotion into the math. She asked council members to “have the strength to stick with it.”
“I fear we’re coming to an impasse on unions,” Pratt said. “This is going to be a hard one, and I’m envisioning a packed hall. It’s going to be a tough one.”
GROVER’S OVER PLAN B Though he maintains that Pensacola Beach needs attention, Escambia County Commissioner Grover Robinson has backed away from the proposed Plan B following a pair of public meetings on the subject.
“The people don’t see it yet, so there’s no reason to push something they don’t see,” Robinson said.
Recently approved by the Santa Rosa Island Authority, Plan B is the result of a multi-year study aimed at addressing traffic, parking and safety concerns on the beach. The $25 million plan calls for a raised roadway at the beach’s core intersection, as well as a pedestrian concourse connecting the Casino Beach parking lot with the Portofino Boardwalk.
“It’s not a bad plan, it just needs to be shelved until the time that there is the public support,” the commissioner said.
Robinson said that the general sentiments expressed by people during the public meetings were negative—many centered on the price tag and most probable source of funding, an increased toll on the beach bridge.
The Escambia County Commission will take up the proposed Plan B April 17, though its chances now appear slim as Robinson—the plan’s most vocal supporter on the board—has backed off. A number of other commissioners have already expressed their concerns with the beach plan.