To regain annual pay raises, West Palm police union set to give up some pension cash

WEST PALM BEACH, FL &#8211 After two years without annual pay raises for its rank-and-file members, the police union has reached a deal with the city that returns them.

But police officers, especially those with 13 years or more of service, had to make a sacrifice. And the deal was less a product of a controversial police protest at SunFest last year than it was a change in a state law this year that was meant to relax the onus of police pensions on cities.

Under the three-year contract, negotiated by West Palm Beach administrators and the Police Benevolent Association this week, the city will resume a pay step plan that guarantees a five percent annual raise to officers in their first 10 years on the force and that will cost the city about $200,000 a year.

But to get the contract, which awaits ratification by union members next week, union officials agreed to forfeit about $1 million a year for the next two years that it is supposed to get from the state for its Share account – an extra pension that officers receive after they retire. The union has agreed that money — the equivalent of $3,000-$4,000 a year per officer — will instead go to the city to help balance its budget.

So, over the contract’s three years, the city would have to pay $600,000 in pay raises, but would collect $2 million meant for the pension fund. Meanwhile, most officers with 12 years service or less can expect to see their income grow by more than 15 percent over the three years; the deal applies to officers with as much as 12 years to compensate them for the two years that raises were frozen.

Union treasurer Lou Penque said he expects the contract will be ratified, but he thinks it will be one of the closest votes in the union’s history.

“A lot of people are not happy giving up $8,000,” Penque said. “There are a lot of people who have been topped out. Over half the department is really getting nothing out of it and there’s a grumbling of discontent. In their eyes they’re giving up all this and getting nothing. But it is what it is.”

Police Benevolent Association Executive Director Ernie George defended the contract, saying it was important for the step raises to be reinstated.

“People were promised and came here believing they would have the pay plan,” he said.

George also said, “The city’s in tough shape right now. By forfeiting (the Share) money, it should help them along.”

City Commissioner Kimberly Mitchell praised the union, saying, “They made a big concession. It’s for the younger guys and women, and I think we have an obligation to (pay them what they expected). I think we can do because of the concessions the union was willing to make.”

“It’s been difficult negotiations,” City Administrator Ed Mitchell said. “Both sides gave in and it was a fair agreement in the end.”

The deal wouldn’t have been possible without the passage this spring of a law (SB 1128) meant to ease the police and firefighter pension demands on cities made by an earlier law, said Trish Shoemaker, benefits administrator for the state’s Municipal Police Officers and Firefighters’ Retirement Trust Funds Office.

Under a 1999 law, cities get part of a state tax on the casualty insurance policies written within their boundaries that must be used for extra benefits for police officers. The new law lets cities increase police officers’ contributions to their extra benefits accounts without increasing benefits.

West Palm Beach is effectively increasing the officers’ contributions to their Share pension by taking the officers’ share of the insurance tax.

“They’re switching the dollars around,” Shoemaker said.

From The Palm Beach Post.

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