united states project

A Florida paper’s aggressive coverage of pension problems shapes reform

Times-Union fights for public involvement in overhaul of Jacksonville police, fire plans
December 19, 2014

MIAMI — The Florida Times-Union, Jacksonville’s daily paper, continues to see results from its work holding city officials accountable to readers and taxpayers. The paper’s deeply reported investigation into the Jacksonville pension system for firefighters and police officers, and the ongoing coverage of efforts to reform it, had a state legislator this week calling on the governor to launch his own investigation.

The paper’s coverage—and its fight in court to uphold the state’s open meetings law—have also shaped local reform efforts.

Problems with the pension system have been percolating in Jacksonville for years now. It is severely underfunded and projected to cost Jacksonville taxpayers hundreds of millions of dollars in additional payments. David Bauerlein explained to readers in April how Jacksonville’s required annual payments to the pension fund had ballooned from just $22 million in 2004 to nearly $145 million 10 years later. The comprehensive story came with informative graphics and clear explanations of what the city sacrifices in order to fund the pension shortfalls. Among the highlights: An average homeowner would pay about $250 less in property taxes in the coming year if Jacksonville were not forced to fund the pension shortfall.

Bauerlein followed up with a story comparing Jacksonville’s benefits to other large cities in Florida. Then the Times-Union’s Eileen Kelley reported that the pension fund’s administrator has his own special, extremely lucrative pension, which city attorneys have deemed illegal. The full three-part investigation is here.

After the big investigation rolled out, the Times-Union kept on the story. In August, Kelley explained how the city’s extremely generous Deferred Retirement Option Plan meant some police and firefighters can expect as much as $4 million in retirement benefits, and how at least one was retiring with nearly $5 million in promised benefits because he was able to game a system that offers more “lavish guarantees” than any other in the state. Kelley found that Jacksonville taxpayers had to contribute extra to the city’s DROP plan seven times in the past 15 years because the market didn’t yield the promised 8.4 percent.

The paper’s aggressive coverage of the pension crisis is tightly connected to its fight for open government. I noted in the spring that the Jacksonville paper commits real resources fighting for open-government principles in court. One of those battles was about the pension story: The paper filed a lawsuit arguing that a reform plan secretly negotiated between the mayor and pension board was a violation of Florida’s open-meetings law.

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The Times-Union won the first round of the suit over the pension negotiations last year. Then the paper won again in October, when the First District Court of Appeal ruled that “[b]y holding closed-door negotiations that resulted in changes to the public employees’ pension benefits, the appellants ignored an important party who also had the right to be in the room—the public.” After the appeals decision came out, the city council passed a resolution urging the mayor to stop fighting a losing battle with the Times-Union.

Frank Denton, the paper’s editor, told me one of the results of the public scrutiny has been a new pension reform plan, negotiated in public.

“The city council amended it pretty profoundly to make it more favorable to taxpayers,” he said. “The public’s involvement in this has yielded better results than when it was negotiated behind closed doors.”

The public reaction to the paper’s work has been “phenomenal,” Denton said.

“People felt helpless with the overall government machinations,” he said. “The fact that we stood up and the courts agreed with us and we got it put back in the public arena, people stop me on the street to thank us. It happened twice yesterday.”

And there’s even better news in Jacksonville. Denton told me there’s a job open on the paper’s investigative team.

I’m sure some talented investigative reporter would love to work for an editor whose philosophy is: “This is the kind of thing you do good journalism for, when you can make a difference in something that’s really important.”

Susannah Nesmith is CJR’s correspondent for Florida, Georgia, and Alabama. She is a freelance writer based in Miami with more than 25 years working for regional and national outlets. Follow her on Twitter @susannahnesmith.