City OKs pension changes for law enforcement unions


Published: Wednesday, January 23, 2013 at 5:38 p.m.
Last Modified: Wednesday, January 23, 2013 at 5:38 p.m.

The Gainesville City Commission has given preliminary approval to proposed pension changes for the city's two police department unions.

Intended to slow the growth of the city's spiraling pension obligations, the changes would cut some benefits and require that law enforcement personnel work longer to qualify for certain benefits.

City staff and the bargaining teams for the Fraternal Order of Police, which represents officers, corporals and sergeants, and the Police Benevolent Association, which represents lieutenants, have been negotiating on the proposed changes for some 18 months.

Neither side has given final approval. The police department employees represented by the two unions still have to vote on the changes, and the City Commission must approve an ordinance to enact them.

The City Commission has previously approved pension changes negotiated with the Communications Workers of America and the Amalgamated Transit Union.

Meanwhile, the city administration's bargaining team and representatives of the firefighter union have not reached any agreement on proposed changes.

"We're not close," Risk Management Director Steve Varvel said.

Lt. Tracy Higdon, president of the International Association of Firefighters Local 2157, could not be reached for comment.

In recent years, the recession's impact on investment markets, a growing number of retirees and an increase in the length of retirements have combined to make the pension plans a larger financial obligation for the city.

The city's contribution to the pension plans rose from approximately $4 million in fiscal year 2005-06 to a projected $12.9 million in fiscal year 2012. City administration projected the annual costs for city government would rise to more than $21 million in a few years if agreements were not reached on some benefit reductions.

"Am I excited about what I negotiated? Absolutely not." said FOP President Jeff McAdams, a Gainesville police officer. "It is a sign of the times. I am concerned in the long haul that, with some of the changes we negotiated, we may not be able to attract good, quality officers to the Gainesville Police Department."

In fiscal year 2012, the city put nearly $1.9 million toward police pensions, Varvel said. The city projects that the proposed changes negotiated with the FOP and PBA would trim some $306,000 off the costs in fiscal year 2013-14, the first year they would be in effect.

As with the other city unions, future police department hires would bear the brunt of the benefit reductions.

New officers hired after the changes take effect would have to work 25 years — up from the current 20 — to be eligible for normal retirement benefits. Their annual benefit would be determined as a percentage of their salary based on their 48 consecutive months of highest pay. That's up from the current 36 months.

Among other changes, the new hires and current employees who are not yet retirement-eligible also would have to work longer to get cost-of-living increases to their annual benefit.

Currently, employees with 20 years of service receive a 2 percent annual cost-of-living increase at age 62, while employees with 25 years of service receive that at age 55.

The proposed changes would require 25 years of service — with a 1 percent cost of living increase annually at age 55 and 2 percent at age 62 for new hires and current employees who are not yet retirement-eligible.

PBA President Brandon Kutner, a sergeant with the Sheriff's Office, said he expects that union to make a counteroffer to the city's proposal. Kutner also said the union would be leery to ratify anything when the upcoming legislative session could bring state laws cutting back on the benefits offered under municipal pensions.

Some current police department employees would also be affected by the proposed changes. There would be a cap of 300 hours on how much overtime pay could apply to retirement benefits and a reduction in interest earned through the Deferred Retirement Option Program (DROP).

They would also see a future reduction in the "multiplier," or the percentage of their pay they receive for each year of service. Currently, it is 2.625 percent; under the city's proposal it would go to 2.5 percent.

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