Police Fire Pensions: Respect – Protect – Support

Florida lawmakers are considering a common sense measure, supported by Historic City News, that will ensure good benefits for our police and firefighters — while respecting taxpayers.

The current defined-benefit pension system is broken and must be fixed. By closing loopholes and rolling back unfunded state mandates, we can ensure that reasonable and sustainable pensions will remain for generations to come.

In case you aren’t familiar with why the present Florida pension plan doesn’t work for you, as a taxpayer, you should understand that it allows some police officers or firefighters to retire at a young age (before they turn 50) and continue to make more than $80,000 a year…for the rest of their lives.

It allows officers and firefighters with active lifestyles to claim disability and retire early while collecting full benefits – some even draw disability and leave service to take other physically demanding jobs.

It automatically assumes a police officer with high blood pressure or a breathing condition, contracted that illness on the job. It allows him or her to retire early “on disability” even if the cause of the illness is due to family history or their lifestyle — and not their job. Even smokers and extremely overweight officers with high blood pressure are automatically assumed to be “disabled because of job-related conditions”.

Want more examples? Here are six actual case studies of pension decisions in Florida that are putting taxpayers and other legitimate pensioners at financial risk.

Case #1

DD was the Police Chief from a small south Florida City of less than 100,000 people. He retired in his 40’s and was given a pension of over $180,000 per year. He now works for a town in the same county with a population of less than 1,000 people (that is not a typo) and is paid $100,000 per year as the police chief. As a result, his total income is over $280,000 per year. This story was first chronicled in the Sun-Sentinel in September of 2011.

Case #2

Also featured in the Sun-Sentinel, RM was the Deputy Fire Chief of a medium sized city of 150,000 people. He was not the Chief, but a deputy. He retired at the age of 46, had no disabilities and will earn over $155,000 a year for the rest of his life for an expected lifetime payout of over $5,000,000.

Case #3

DG was a Fire Lieutenant who retired at the age of 50. When he retired his base salary was $81,000. His retirement is $108,000 a year for the rest of his life. Because of state mandated pension benefit calculators, his annual pay during his retirement actually exceeds his base salary of $81,000 per year by $27,000 annually. This extra retirement benefit is expected to cost taxpayers an additional $783,000 over his expected life. Source: Sun-Sentinel, 9/18/11.

Case #4

PK was a call center employee for a small Florida municipality. Her base salary, according to news reports, was $60,000 per year. PK took advantage of the state mandated loopholes, retired at the age of 54 and is now receiving a retirement benefit that is more than three times her base salary and makes $182,000 per year and will continue to receive that for the rest of her life. She is healthy and is expected to cost local taxpayers nearly $5.5 million over the course of her life.

Case #5

LA worked as a firefighter for a large Central Florida city. At the age of 42, he claimed that he hurt his back and was put on disability retirement. This city now pays him disability pay of $37,000 per year and will do so for the rest of his life. This same man now works as the lead instructor for a fitness survival program in New York. The course is self-described as “intense” and “physically demanding” — so much so that, “waivers must be signed prior to participation.” State law does not readily allow for a re-determination of his disability status and this so-called “disabled’ man will take home $37,000 a year while also working in a physically demanding job.

Case #6

CC is an avid runner. According to the website coolrunning.com, he ran a 4-mile race in just over 26 minutes. As a certified personal trainer he lives a very active lifestyle. Unfortunately, for the taxpayers of this small coastal community, they pay him nearly $50,000 a year for his “disability retirement” due to a supposed back injury. If he lives a normal lifespan, this state mandate will end up costing taxpayers another $1,430,000 to continue paying him for the rest of his life.

I believe that fixing our current, broken system will require three components.

Respect Police and Firefighters

We honor and respect the service provided by police and firefighters. That is why current and future officers and firefighters deserve a pension system that is sound, sustainable and reliable.

Protect Taxpayers

Local taxpayers know that public safety employees deserve benefits and pensions worthy of their service. But unfunded state mandates requiring more increases in these benefits cannot be sustained.

Support Responsible Reform

Responsible pension reform ensures that future generations of firefighters and police officers will have something to look forward to. Early retirement and disability loopholes not only threaten to raise taxes but to reduce or even eliminate future benefits for those who truly deserve them.

What needs to be done to fix this mess?

1. Collective Bargaining Over Retirement Benefits and Revenues: Allow cities and police/fire unions to collectively bargain the retirement benefits provided pursuant to, and the use of insurance premium tax revenues provided under, Chapters 175 or 185, Florida Statutes. If a collective bargaining agreement ends without a new agreement coming into effect, retirement benefits revert to the chapter minimum benefit levels and premium taxes are to fund these benefit levels until a new agreement is effective. (These changes would remove the current state law mandate that specified insurance premium tax revenues be used only for new or “extra” retirement benefits for firefighters and police officers.)

2. Alternative Retirement Plans: Allow cities to unilaterally transition to a defined contribution plan, the Florida Retirement System, or another retirement program for police/fire and continue to receive insurance premium tax revenues to pay for the retirement expenses.

3. Boards of Trustees Fiscal Transparency and Accountability: Require statutorily created police/fire pension boards of trustees to adopt and operate under an administrative expense budget, and require a detailed accounting of pension boards of trustees’ expenses.

4. Fiscally Responsible Retirement Plan Termination: Require police/fire pension boards of trustees and cities to work together for a fiscally responsible distribution of plan assets if a city must terminate its police/fire retirement plan.

5. Clarify Police Overtime Used for Retirement Purposes: Due to an incorrect interpretation by the Division of Retirement of the law passed in 2011, clarify that police officers may use up to 300 hours per year in overtime compensation when calculating retirement benefits as provided in the plan or collective bargaining agreement, and that police officers are not entitled to the use of a minimum of 300 hours per year in overtime compensation for retirement purposes.

6. Disability Presumptions: Reform current statutory disability presumptions for firefighters, law enforcement officers, and correctional officers relating to tuberculosis, heart disease, or hypertension to require the employee to meet age and employment requirements, allow the presumption to be overcome by a preponderance of evidence, and allow certain individual risk factors to be considered when applying the presumption. Disability presumptions are applicable to both workers’ compensation and disability pension claims. (These proposals may be adjusted based upon the findings and recommendations of the current Task Force on Public Employee Disability Presumptions).

That said, I am asking Historic City News readers to contact our state lawmakers and express support for House Bill 365 and companion Senate Bill 901.

Let Representative Bill Proctor know that you respect public safety and support pension reform that protects taxpayers, removes unfunded mandates and preserves sustainable pensions for our future.

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