One in an occasional series previewing the Florida Legislature, which begins its session Jan. 10.
By LAURA C. MOREL
Cities throughout Florida would no longer be required to fund extra pension benefits for police and firefighters under a proposed bipartisan bill.
Instead, cities could apply those funds to basic pension benefits in the future, or avoid having to increase property taxes to pay for the enhanced benefits, proponents of the bill say.
The Florida League of Cities, an organization representing the state’s municipalities, is lobbying hard for the proposed legislation. The bill negates a law passed in 1999 under then-Gov. Jeb Bush, requiring cities to dedicate growth in tax revenue from property and casualty insurance premiums to extra police and firefighter pension benefits.
Since 1999, Florida cities have spent more than $460 million in extra pension benefits, according to the League of Cities. Extra pension benefits can range from receiving 13-month pay checks in one year to early retirement. The law allows some police and firefighters to retire early and make more than $80,000 a year -- before turning 50, the league states.
“Those monies could have been used to provide and sustain for the (pension) plan,” said John Thomas, the league’s director of communications and political initiatives. Under the proposed legislation, Thomas said, pension benefits instead “will be available for future police officers and firefighters.”
The legislation, known as HB 365 or SB 910, calls for collective bargaining between cities and unions to negotiate both basic and additional benefits.
“We want to be able to sit across the negotiating table from the police and firefighters,” said Scott Dudley, director of legislative affairs at the League of Cities.
But some local union and city officials are voicing their opposition to the bill.
“It’s unnecessary,” said Matt Puckett, executive director for the Florida Police Benevolent Association, which represents both Bradenton and Palmetto police departments. “We made some reforms last year that have shown to be very helpful to the city and to the taxpayers.” The additional benefits, he stressed, serve as a “rewards system” for police officers and firefighters because of the nature of their jobs.
Last year, the current law was amended to cap the number of overtime hours used to calculate retirement compensation at 300 hours per year to avoid spiking benefits. But Dudley said the change is misinterpreted and the 300-hour mark is used as a minimum number of overtime hours. The 2012 legislation also calls for a clarification of this measure.
At the Suncoast Professional Firefighters and Paramedics, IAFF Local 2546 union, which represents the Bradenton Fire Department, business agent Rocco Salvatori said Bradenton and its union “don’t need the League of Cities’ help for pension reform.”
“We’ve bargained many money-saving issues in the past,” said Salvatori, who is also a Bradenton firefighter. “If we have a pension emergency, I’m very confident that the city and firefighters’ union can come up with something.”
Carl Callahan, city of Bradenton clerk and treasurer, supports the proposed legislation. But he, too, says the city and the unions have worked out their differences through negotiations.
“It certainly can be handled on its own because it is subject to collective bargaining,” Callahan said. “But there are some people who don’t have unions, either.”
At Palmetto, city clerk Jim Freeman said “it’s probably good” that the current legislation is looked at.
“In the short term, it’s nice,” Freeman said about extra pension benefits. “But in the long term, we have to kind of balance that. Is it going to be sustainable from a financial standpoint?”
The proposed legislation also calls for more transparency from the pension boards of trustees -- which are independent of the cities -- that oversee how pension dollars are invested.
“They ought to be more accountable, more transparent,” Dudley said.
The proposed legislation would also change disability presumptions. Under current law, the cause of any police officer or firefighter suffering from heart disease, tuberculosis or hypertension is presumed to be job-related.
“There are so many other factors that can be considered,” Thomas said, including lifestyle choices and hereditary conditions.
Salvatori said changes with disability presumptions aren’t needed.
“I don’t see this rampant abuse of these presumption illness provisions,” he said. “I only know of less than a handful that have utilized it, and all of them were legitimate claims.”