Exodus Of Officers Leads To Albuquerque Longevity Plan

ALBUQUERQUE, NM – Albuquerque has already lost nearly 19 percent of its police force — about 200 officers — over the past 4½ years.

And the police administration warned late Monday that a wave of potential retirements could push the department to a 25-year low by May 2016.

The City Council, aiming to reverse that trend, adopted legislation that calls for putting extra cash in officers’ paychecks for every year they postpone retirement and stay on the job. It could add up to $12,000 a year for some officers.

The council vote was unanimous, though there was disagreement over whether to provide the money in paychecks, as approved, or through a deferred compensation plan. Some councilors had also pushed to postpone the vote for two weeks to analyze the proposal’s impact on state pension funds.

Stephanie Lopez, president of the Albuquerque Police Officers’ Association, urged councilors to pass the bill immediately.

“We have seen staffing levels drop to what we believe is a dangerously low level,” she said.

Mayor Richard Berry is a vocal supporter of the proposal and it now heads to his desk for final approval.

He has warned that City Hall could lose 200 more officers to retirement over the next two years, a potential exodus he says is driven by coming changes to the retirement system for New Mexico’s government employees. Less generous benefits will kick in for people who retire next year, he said.

A bipartisan pair of councilors, Democrat Diane Gibson and Republican Trudy Jones, sponsored Monday’s legislation, though they disagreed on the details. Jones’ version, which adds a few hundred dollars each pay period to officers’ checks, ultimately won approval.

The proposal calls for offering $6,000 or $12,000 to officers who postpone retirement for a year, depending on their tenure. The goal is to keep seasoned officers on the force, supporters said.

The council legislation authorizes about $900,000 to pay for the incentives through next summer. It would take about $1.5 million a year to keep it going after that.

Albuquerque has seen its police force shrink in recent years. The city had 1,099 officers in June 2010, but only 891 last month.

Staffing could fall to 789 officers by May 2016 if current recruitment trends hold and eligible officers retire, Deputy Police Chief William Roseman told the council. That would be a 25-year low, he said.

But some councilors wanted to hold off on immediate action.

“The right way is not to rush this through,” Gibson said.

Among the concerns is whether the proposal would damage the financial health of the funds that pay for officers’ pensions.

In an interview, Wayne Propst, executive director of the state’s Public Employees Retirement Association, raised concerns about the legislation, which he said he received only Monday. More analysis is needed, he said, because the pension fund already faces financial challenges.

“We are concerned that this proposal has not been vetted through PERA,” Propst said, “and we have not had an opportunity to determine whether or not it would have an impact on the fund.”

If the city boosts pay for officers in the final year or years before retirement, that could have the effect of also boosting the size of officers’ pensions. That’s because pensions are based on how much employees make in their last years of employment.

Lopez, the police union president, said officers are leaving for many reasons, retirement changes among them. Other factors include media scrutiny, the U.S. Department of Justice investigation — which found APD had a pattern of violating people’s rights — and competitive pay elsewhere, she said.

Officers generally can retire with significant benefits after 20 years of service. An officer at 20 years typically makes about $55,000 a year, not including specialty pay or overtime, officials say.

From The Albuquerque Journal