Recent legislation finally makes amends to fire and police retirement slash
Mar 25, 2019 04:53PM
By Erin Dixon
Since 2011, Fire and police officers have dealt with a weak retirement pension. State legislature finally made positive changes in March 2019. (Photo courtesy West Jordan Police)
By Erin Dixon | [email protected]
Senate bill (SB) 189 finally bandages the open wound left in 2011 (bill was passed in 2010, implemented in 2011) when an overhaul to state employee retirement left first responders with a weak retirement plan.
West Jordan Police Chief Ken Wallentine was not happy with the changes at the time and has struggled since then with recruitment and retention of good officers. Previously an officer was only required to work 20 years before being eligible for receiving a 50 percent pension. That was modified to 25 years in 2011 and the percentage decreased to just over 37 percent.
“[U]nlike every other public employee our retirement was slashed. And I don’t know about firefighters, but I can tell you that around in the surrounding states, it is nearly twice the retirement for a 25 year officer when they leave,” Wallentine said.
West Jordan Fire Chief Derek Maxfield further defined the changes and their impact.
“The retirement system was changed from the pension plan before to a hybrid plan that allowed for defined contribution or defined benefit,” he explained. “And the defined benefit, if someone chose to go that route, the percentages for the years worked were much less than they were before….[I]f someone chose a defined contribution like a 401k... it became really easy to take that money and transfer to somewhere else.”
On March 14, 2019, state legislators finally amended the loss with SB 129. However, the effects will not be seen until 2020.
“The legislation has a delayed implementation date of one year,” Wallentine said. “In one year, the retirement benefit changes from 37.5 percent at 25 years to 50 percent at 25 years. The delayed implementation was necessary to reach a deal. During that year, the Utah Retirement System will study the additional costs and benefits.
“Sen. (Wayne) Harper's SB 129 Sub 3 Tier II Retirement Enhancements bill passed in both the House and the Senate. At the end of the day, only two Representatives maintained their opposition to the final vote.”
The debate on the legislature floor was heated. West Jordan City Attorney Rob Wall described the displeasure of lawmakers, not to the current bill but to the previous change in 2011 that was supposed to be beneficial, not detrimental.
“During the debate on the floor….a representative said that the cities reneged on their commitment when the percentages of contributions were lowered to what they are now,” Wall said. “This is the allegation, that the cities would take that money ...and rais[e] salaries of police officers. And in fact that didn’t happen in most cities. There’s quite a bit of rancor to the cities.”
Wallentine confirmed the change in 2011 was upsetting for many.
“There were promises made that were swept out the door right after the promises were made,” he said. “We intended to see significant increases in firefighter and police wages. The intent was that those firefighters and police officers would drive forward their retirement in private funds. They would manage and that someday we would have so much time to be financial wizards that we’d have a great retirement. It was fallacious then and it’s fallacious now.”
For the years in between, the poor retirement made recruiting and retention of good officers and firefighters more difficult. Before 2011 there were long lines of applicants for police and fire positions.
“If you were to look back historically when we put out opportunities to test and put out positions, we used to have hundreds of applicants,” Maxfield said. “Now in many cases we’re lucky to get 100 to apply. And of those applicants many are eliminated because they don’t meet the requirements or due to other factors like background checks. It’s become difficult.”
Money can be a serious draw for qualified individuals. When trained officers and firefighters do not stay, the problems trickle down from the offices to the community.
“We continue to have very astute young people that come to this profession, that aren’t staying,” Wallentine said. “They’ve developed the judgement skills, they’ve had their knuckles bruised, they’ve learned to quite bluntly use their hearts and their tongues instead of their commands and their fists, when they’ve become really valuable to this community, that’s when they say ‘Hey, I’ve built some skills, and I think I’ll go do real estate, or I’ll go do some other business, and I’m going to make a lot of money.. That’s when we lose them.”
“As a guy who five years into my career was shot and had to call a paramedic, I was very grateful to have my hole plugged by a 20-year paramedic that instantly knew what to do with a hole that was leaking blood and sucking in air. With all due respect, I hope you can send me the 20-year (paramedic) if I get shot again and not the two-year who figures out he can go and make money elsewhere.”
The future is unclear, but Wallentine is grateful for a small step in the right direction for first responders.
“Legislative leadership required that the various groups commit to not seek additional retirement legislation in the next year,” Wallentine said. “Frankly, it is time to pause and carefully consider the needs of other public employees.”