by Jason Garcia
Updated 2 yearss ago
All of a sudden, things are getting done in Jacksonville
On a Saturday in mid-February, city leaders announced a landmark deal with the leadership of their police and fire unions that will make Jacksonville one of the first cities in the country to eliminate traditional pension plans. Seventy-two hours later, the city council ended years of divisive debate and adopted discrimination protections for the LGBTQ community.
Both issues had become chronic problems for the city of nearly 1 million people. Underfunded for years, the municipal pension plan has ballooned into a nearly $3-billion albatross; roughly $3 out of every $10 the city spends on operations now goes to meet pension obligations, crowding out priorities such as reducing crime and redeveloping downtown. Meanwhile, the lack of a local law prohibiting discrimination on the basis of sexual orientation or sexual identity had become a cultural scarlet letter to the large employers and younger employees the city covets.
Driving the sudden progress is Jacksonville Mayor Lenny Curry, a hyper-competitive gym rat who usually has the wall-mounted flat screen TV in the mayor’s office set to the NFL Network. Curry, who turns 47 this summer and had never held public office before, isn’t quite halfway into his four-year term. But he’s proven to be a quick study, combining a penchant for problem-solving that he developed as an accountant with a shrewd political sense honed while running the Republican Party of Florida.
“He’s brought back a feeling of confidence in our local government,” says Tom Petway, an insurance executive and Republican fundraiser who is one of Curry’s closest advisers. “He’s not flashy, but he does a lot of things. He’s in a lot of places, and he’s making a lot of noise.”
People are hearing that noise far beyond northeast Florida. Curry, who speaks regularly with Florida Gov. Rick Scott, is frequently mentioned as a possible Scott appointee to replace Chief Financial Officer Jeff Atwater, who plans to step down this spring to take a job at Florida Atlantic University. Such an appointment would make Curry the immediate favorite to win the statewide Cabinet post when it comes up for re-election in 2018.
And even if Scott selects someone else for CFO, a successful mayoral tenure could provide Curry a launching pad to run for a state Cabinet office, governor or U.S. Senate at some point.
Curry says he may very well pursue higher office someday. But he says his immediate focus is entirely on Jacksonville, where he has approached the job of mayor much like a corporate turnaround specialist taking over a troubled asset.
“What I like about this job is, while this is a big organization with a lot of moving parts, the city had, and has, a number of opportunities of things that we had to fix,” Curry says. “In many ways, I’m an entrepreneur at heart. I’m getting to exercise that appetite in this office to fix things.”
Entrepreneurial leanings An only child, Curry was born in Key West. He lived there until middle school, when his family moved to Middleburg, a suburb of Jacksonville in Clay County. His father opened a television-repair shop and then bought a Radio Shack franchise. His mom, who earned an associate’s degree in accounting while Curry was still a child, kept the books. Curry worked in the store as a teenager; at times, the three of them were the only employees.
Curry earned an accounting degree at the University of Florida. He chose the major, he says, because he hoped to start his own business. He went to work for Coopers and Lybrand and stayed on when it was acquired and became PricewaterhouseCoopers. In 2002, he and a colleague at PwC started their own financial-services firm, ICX Group, eventually signing big Jacksonville businesses as clients, including CSX, Florida Blue, Southeastern Grocers and the PGA Tour.
In 2003, he and another PwC colleague married; Lenny and Molly Curry today have three children ages 12, 10 and 8. The marriage was Curry’s second; an earlier union ended amicably after two years.
Though Curry never sought public office before he ran for mayor, he says he was always politically aware. “I’ve always had a deep belief that what the private sector does for people’s lives is so powerful — and I’ve always been skeptical of big government,” he says. He knocked on doors for Ander Crenshaw, the former Republican congressman from Jacksonville, when Crenshaw first ran in 2000, but mostly he just talked politics.
“Finally, my wife suggested that I quit talking about it and go do something about it,” he says.
He won a spot on the Duval County Republican Executive Committee, first becoming the treasurer and eventually chairman. In 2009, while Congress was debating President Obama’s Affordable Care Act, Curry arranged a panel on health care; one of the people he invited was a former health care executive and Obamacare critic from Naples named Rick Scott. The two hit it off.
A year later, as Scott waged his self-financed bid for governor and battled a statewide Republican establishment that had mobilized behind longtime Florida politician Bill McCollum, Curry and Scott met at a Hyatt hotel overlooking the St. Johns River in downtown Jacksonville. Curry promised Scott that the Duval County GOP would not take sides in the primary. For good measure, Curry says he mailed Scott a handful of campaign contributions from family members after the meeting.
Their paths met again in early 2011. Two months after Scott was elected, Curry was elected vice chairman of the Republican Party of Florida. He was helped by, among others, John Thrasher, the former GOP state senator from Jacksonville who is now president of Florida State University. Curry became chairman later that year, when David Bitner, the chairman at the time, had to step down because of complications from ALS. (Both Scott and Bitner supported Curry’s elevation; Bitner died soon after.)
As Curry presided over the state Republican Party, the GOP-leaning community back home in Jacksonville was growing unhappy with then-Mayor Alvin Brown, a Democrat who had pulled off a surprising victory in 2011. Business leaders, some of whom had supported Brown, came to believe that Brown couldn’t or wouldn’t take on what they felt were the city’s most pressing issues — particularly, the pension deficit and the discrimination ordinance.
A group of behind-the-scenes power brokers — among them Petway, real estate investor John Rood, consumer-goods marketing lexecutive Gary Chartrand and former Jacksonville Jaguars owner Wayne Weaver — began discussing whom they might recruit to run against Brown in 2015. Curry, who still lived in Jacksonville and ran ICX Group while chairing the RPOF, was on their list.
Petway broached the idea with Curry in January 2013, and Curry weighed a run for several months. Once in the race, he tapped a statewide network of donors and raised more than $5 million — shattering previous local fundraising records and scaring off most other challengers to Brown. Much of the money was spent on advertisements attacking Brown. Curry won by just 5,300 votes out of more than 200,000 cast.
The new mayor immediately charged into Jacksonville’s biggest problems. He made pension reform the signature issue of his administration, building urgency into the problem by announcing there would be no spending on some long-sought civic projects until the pension deficit was solved.
Curry went back to Tallahassee to persuade the Florida Legislature and Scott to create a new kind of local option sales tax that could be used for pension liabilities. Curry then led a $2-million local referendum campaign to convince voters to approve the tax, which will replace an existing half-penny infrastructure tax when that tax expires around 2031.
Curry and his staff then hammered out deals with all of the city’s unions with promises of raises and 401(k) contributions in exchange for closing the pension funds to future hires. Assuming Jacksonville’s 19-member City Council signs off, the pensions will stop adding enrollees this fall.
Curry’s role in the anti-discrimination debate was much more subtle. Shortly after taking office, he organized a series of community meetings on the issue. He then announced he personally did not think an ordinance was necessary — while at the same time extending protections to all LGBTQ employees working for the city or for city vendors. And barely an hour after the city council passed the ordinance, Curry announced he would let it become law (though he withheld his signature).
The result: Curry was able to appease business leaders, who had helped finance his campaign, by wiping clean what they saw as an unwelcoming stain on Jacksonville’s image. At the same time, he never personally championed the measure — clearly trying not to alienate social conservatives, many of whom opposed the measure and will be important in a future Republican primary should Curry choose to run for higher office.
Many in Jacksonville, however, credit him for making sure the issue was addressed. “Jacksonville has been an embarrassing trailer in this,” says Peter Rummell, a Jacksonville developer and GOP fundraiser. “I tend to look at it in terms of an important economic development tool, as opposed to getting moralistic about it.”
While the pension and anti-discrimination debates have commanded most of the headlines, Curry and his supporters point to other accomplishments. Curry has hired 80 new police officers and 80 community-resource officers; overhauled the Jacksonville Electric Authority board; negotiated a $90-million deal with the Jacksonville Jaguars for a public amphitheater and indoor practice facility; and pumped $200 million into rebuilding infrastructure.
Democratic leaders have accused Curry of purging Democrats from local boards. Others say he has ignored better ideas to address the pension deficit in hopes of campaigning for higher office someday as the Republican who eradicated public pensions.
“He’s hyper-partisan in a way that mayors of both parties in Jacksonville’s history haven’t been,” says Lisa King, a Democrat whom Curry fought to have removed from the city’s planning board.
“There’ll be some problems in the future,” adds Randy Wyse, president of the local firefighter’s union, who thinks that eliminating pensions will make it harder for the city to find high-quality firefighters. “We’ll have a recruitment-retention issue.”
But, so far, Curry’s supporters far outnumber his detractors. And even some of his foes acknowledge that he has brought a new energy to City Hall. He’s got a lot of it: Curry begins most of his days at 4:45 in the morning with an hourlong workout of weights and aerobics. He’s a double black diamond skier and last year caught his first blue marlin while fishing with his son. Ultra-competitive, he ran the city’s annual Gate River Run 15-K — unhappy with his eight-minute-a-mile pace.
Curry says if he can finalize the pension agreement this spring, he’ll move on to his next big target: “Downtown,” he says. “Downtown will be a big, focused effort.”
The Pension Rescue Plan
Two decades ago, Jacksonville’s three main pension plans were almost fully funded. Today, they’re nearly $3 billion short of what’s needed to meet their benefit obligations.
Several factors contributed to the chasm in the plans, which cover police officers and firefighters, corrections workers and general government employees. City leaders projected overly optimistic investment returns and used unrealistic assessments of when workers would retire and how long they would live. They also expanded benefits even as they reduced current payments.
Former Mayors John Peyton and Alvin Brown tried unsuccessfully to solve the problem. Brown, who served from 2011- 15, negotiated an agreement with the unions in which the city promised to put more money into the funds in exchange for benefit cuts. But Brown refused to raise taxes and was unable to find a funding source for the promised payments.
Pension obligations now consume nearly one-third of Jacksonville’s roughly $1.1-billion budget. The city contributed $290 million to the fund this year, and the amount is scheduled to jump to $347 million next year, says Mike Weinstein, the city’s chief financial officer.
Mayor Lenny Curry’s plan uses the proceeds from a half-cent local option sales tax to fund the pension plan. State law typically restricts the use of local-option sales surtaxes to a limited number of uses, including infrastructure and transportation projects, but Curry persuaded the Florida Legislature to create a new local-option surtax for pension liabilities that can only be levied if an existing infrastructure surtax expires. Jacksonville voters have voted in favor of Curry’s plan. The tax will kick in after the existing half-cent infrastructure surtax expires around 2030 — enabling Curry to say that it is not a tax increase. It can only be used to pay for pension debt and expires once the pension is fully funded.
Before the plan can go into effect, the unions must agree to close the pension funds to future hires. The Curry administration has persuaded them to do so by offering big raises to current employees, restoration of benefit cuts negotiated by the Brown administration and 25% 401(k) contributions.
Curry’s plan also calls for extending the pension debt out over a longer horizon, reducing annual payments in the short term.
“It’s the least painful of all the painful choices,” Weinstein says.