Jacksonville Police Officers Leaving Because Of Pension Fears, Sheriff Says

Jacksonville’s public safety workers are leaving city employment sooner and in larger numbers, with police officers in particular heading off the force.

The exodus is being blamed on worries about impending changes to the pension earned by police officers and firefighters, Sheriff John Rutherford said, and will result in more having to be spent on training in order to bring new officers on board.

In recent months, Rutherford said, 51 officers have left the Jacksonville Sheriff’s Office citing stress about possible pension changes as a reason — “far greater” than he recalled having seen in the past.

“That’s millions of dollars of training and experience walking out the door that I’m going to have to now replace,” he said, with it costing about $78,000 to put a new officer on the street as part of the force.

In the past, Rutherford said, Jacksonville has typically having been viewed as an employer of choice.

“I’m losing officers to agencies in Northeast Florida,” he said. “We’ve never had that before. They feel the pension is about to get gutted.”

During last year’s budget process, Rutherford did call for pension reform, saying his portion of the $122 million that public safety pensions will cost this year hurt his department.

The Fire Rescue Department does not seem to be experiencing a similar exodus, although it is not clear exactly why there’s a difference. Among possible explanations: more of the fire department has local ties, while police officers tend to come from a wider range of locales.

Still, said Randy Wyse, president of the local firefighters union, “I’m getting calls every day.”

“I tell them there’s no need to worry. We feel strongly in our position that we’re going to succeed.”

Police union President Nelson Cuba did not return calls for comment.

Both unions have refused to negotiate changes to their pension benefits, saying the city has to talk to the Police and Fire Pension Fund because of an agreement dating back to 2000. The city points to state law and legal rulings that say pensions must be negotiated by the unions.

The unions are both at impasse with the city, with hearings before special magistrates slated for later in the year.

Similar reforms

Mayor Alvin Brown, who has proposed changes he says will save up to $1.5 billion over 30 years, said he’s sensitive to issues of recruitment and retention but that Jacksonville is not the only city looking to change its pension system.

“Anyone who looks around the state is going to find that communities across Florida are dealing with similar challenges and pursing similar reforms,” he said.

Brown’s proposals would tack on years of service before employees could retire and would make retirees wait until they’re 60 to start drawing benefits but would not reduce accrued pension benefits.

Nevertheless, the concerns of employees who could see their retirement plans affected are reflected in the number of people signed up for the Deferred Retirement Option Program, in which retirees can get a lump sum upon retirement in exchange for reduced annual benefits.

The number of people joining has been trending upward in recent years, while the amount of time they work before retiring has shrunk.

“Part of the reason people are leaving much earlier is the continued demonization and talk of changing benefits,” said Police and Fire Pension Fund Executive Director John Keane. “People who have spent a career want to make sure that what they’ve worked for all those years is what they’re going to get.”

Putting aside the first year DROP existed — in which 319 people who had worked an average 28.5 years enrolled — the average year has seen 89 people sign up.

In fiscal year 2011, though, the number jumped to 158, dropping to 135 last year. In this fiscal year, which began in October, 59 people have already signed up — 48 police officers and 11 firefighters.

The amount of time those workers have been with the city, meanwhile, has fallen, from 26.2 years in 2000 to 21.79 last year. The average service time of the workers who signed up at the beginning of this fiscal year: 20.8

Having workers leave earlier could eventually present a problem for the pension fund, which could see its costs rise in concert with the trend.

Although working longer results in a bigger annual pension, the total cost to the fund — and by extension, the city — can be more for someone who retires earlier because their checks get dispersed for longer.

A 45-year-old police officer, say, who retires after 21 years on the force and a $60,000 salary would get a $37,200 pension. If he lived to 60, the officer would get about $692,000 over the course of retirement, including cost-of-living adjustments. If the same officer worked until he was 52, his salary might rise to $69,000, pushing his pension to $52,380 – but his total payout would be only around $466,000.

Although firefighters are not leaving in droves, Wyse said, that could happen if pension changes are put in to place.

Even a small change, like jettisoning the now-guaranteed 3 percent cost-of-living adjustment, could mean it would make sense for some workers to leave a few years before they otherwise would, he said.

“I’m scared of what it’s going to do to the force if it occurs,” Wyse said. “That’s what this proposal does – put the fear in people. It could have a very adverse inverse on the force: a max exodus.”

From The Florida Times-Union

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