Pension spending, curbing crime, and pizza boxes dominated discussion at the first of three candidate forums sponsored by the Ponce Business Association.
The forums, moderated by CBS4 news anchor Eliott Rodriguez, a Coral Gables resident, are designed to introduce voters to the 10 candidates who are vying for three seats in the April 9 city election.
Thursday night, the five candidates for the Group 3 seat — Jackson Rip Holmes, Patricia Keon, Phillip (P.J.) Mitchell, Norman Anthony (Tony) Newell and Mary Young — didn’t spar over any issue. They agreed, for the most part, that out-of-control pension costs are the most pressing issue in the Gables. They also fielded handwritten questions from residents who gathered in a meeting room at the Coral Gables Congregational Church.
• On pensions:
Since 2001, the city’s unfunded pension liability swelled from $8 million to $235 million. In September, Coral Gables commissioners voted unanimously to reduce pension benefits for some police officers and to require a larger annual pension contribution from current officers, from 5 to 10 percent of wages. That saved an estimated $1.9 million per year. Negotiations with the firefighters union are ongoing.
In addition, in December, the commission voted 3-2 to reject the Retirement Board’s request to provide a 6 percent cost-of-living increase for retirees. If the city had approved that, the cost would have been $1.6 million per year over 30 years — or $48 million.
The Retirement Board oversees pension money for police officers, firefighters and general employees. Term-limited commissioners Ralph Cabrera and Maria Anderson dissented. Cabrera is running for the mayor’s seat against incumbent Jim Cason and the two will appear at a March 21 forum at the church.
Holmes, 61, a commercial real estate broker who ran for the Group 4 seat won by Commissioner Frank Quesada in 2011, believes a stronger downtown, with tax revenue from an anchor mall store, could shore up the pension problem.
“One of the reasons we’re in this deficit and $200 million in unfunded liabilities is deficient financial planning in the downtown area. In my heart of hearts, that’s why I’m running. I’ve been trying to get this city to have a department store on Miracle Mile. Had we done that, we wouldn’t have these unfunded liabilities. We need to have a retail anchor so when you make a shopping decision, instead of going to Dadeland, you go to Miracle Mile.’’
The city, however, has two major department stores anchors at The Village of Merrick Park: Neiman Marcus and Nordstrom.
Keon, 64, a member of the Coral Gables Planning and Zoning Board and civic volunteer, praised the efforts of the current commission and city manager Pat Salerno for tackling the pension problem.
“There have been huge changes under the current city manager in two years’ time to resolve [pensions.] Under current management, it is likely if we negotiate, it will work out fine,” she said.
Mitchell, 39, a partner with the law firm Mitchell & West, advocated that new city employees choose between a city pension or a defined contribution plan like a 401(k).
“When I first came to work they allowed us a choice — pension plan or defined contribution,” Mitchell said.