Anniston has had a deal with its police and fire employees since 1951: Work for a little less money than other cities and we’ll take care of retirement.
“You did it at a little lower pay because you saw the end result,” said Tony Taylor, retired chief of the Anniston Fire Department, now a Jacksonville city councilman. “We worked at a lower rate than other municipalities at the time, knowing at that time that we had a better retirement.”
But a recent proposal to cut the city population nearly in half could jeopardize that deal.
Taylor retired in 2017 after a 31-year career with the Fire Department. He’s one of about 200 retirees drawing from the city’s police and fire retirement fund as of October, according to an Anniston audit for the 2018 fiscal year. The fund originally paid retirees 90 percent of their regular wages for a maximum of 30 years, though that was reduced to 75 percent in 2012 to keep the fund from emptying out. The city has about 159 active police and fire employees paying 14 percent of their paychecks into the pension, and according to Cory Salley, Anniston’s financial director, the city pays millions per year to keep the fund on the road to solvency. The fund stands at $33.7 million as of the 2018 audit.
If a proposal by the group Forward 4 All to excise much of Anniston’s east side and transplant it in Oxford were to come to pass, though, the city’s population would fall by almost half, reducing its city limits along with its revenue. The deannexation plan would come with a reduction in workforce, according to Salley.
“Having the decrease in revenue would make it a lot harder for sure to make that large contribution,” he said. “But then you also have, if that large of a chunk leaves the city, a reduction in workforce — you’re not going to have potentially as many police and firefighters paying into the plan.”
Fewer active workers paying into the plan is a quick path toward a deficit. Cpt. Justin Sanford, a current Police Department employee and the chairman of the retirement fund board, illustrated the problem:
“There are fewer paying into the system, but you still have the same number of retirees who are already retired,” Sanford said. “That number doesn’t change no matter what we do. Their checks are still their checks.”
Retirees have to work at least 20 years in Anniston to be eligible for the police and fire pension. That’s two decades of hard work, Sanford said, going from a resting position to high alert in the span of a single emergency call, hoofing it to a patrol car or fire engine and lugging around life-saving equipment.
“That takes a toll on your body, and kind of limits what you can do later on,” Sanford said. “I’m sure Fire is in the same boat. And it limits your options, if this is where you’ve put all your education, all of your training.”
Taylor said those decades come with long, tiring hours. But through all of it, there’s the promise of retirement.
“You make a modest living, work your shift, then go to work another job to make ends meet,” he said. “Once I retire, I’m not going to be rich, but I can have a comfortable retirement.”
The pension board had to compromise in 2012 when it became apparent that the retirement fund, operating at a 90 percent of wage payment for retirees and taking 10 percent of active worker paychecks, wasn’t going to work out. Taylor said they worked with the city and came up with the current pay-in and pay-out. He said the situation with Forward 4 All’s deannexation bid is different because there’s no way for those vested in the fund to control what happens to it. Police and firefighters are “proactive people,” he said, but without some way to help themselves they can begin to feel hopeless.
“Going to the state Legislature, I’m really having to scratch my head on that,” Taylor said. “Who is making that decision that affects not only the police and fire pension, but the residents of Anniston and Oxford?”
Rep. Randy Wood, R-Saks, said that he’s been getting calls from retirees since news broke about the city swap. He said the right way to do something like this is to have everybody “come to the table and address everybody it’s going to hurt.”
“You can’t just do people wrong like this,” Wood said. “Talking about people’s livelihood who have been working years and years and years in Anniston, that’s not kosher.”
Wood said he’s already come down squarely against the deannexation plan.
“They put their lives on the line every day anyway, and all of a sudden they do make it and get to retire and someone’s going to take it away from them?” Wood asked. “That’s not going to be with my vote.”