Police pensions will remain intact for Sarasota Police Department officers — for now.
More than 100 officers and their family members packed City Hall during the Sarasota City Commission meeting Monday to support the current pension plan.
Representing the police union, attorney Diane Bailey Morton tried to dispel what she called “a perception that police officers were dragging the city into financial ruin.”
“Police officers are not deaf, dumb and blind to what’s happening around them in this economy,” Morton said. “But if you take away their pensions for a 401(k), these officers who act as domestic soldiers for your community will leave.”
Sarasota Police Benevolent Association President Mick McHale said the department already had lost two officers who had become fed up with the stalled police contract negotiations. McHale also expressed frustration that officers weren’t being offered the same type of contract the city agreed upon last month with the local Teamsters union.
That three-year deal gives Teamsters employees the right to keep an amended pension plan or move into a defined contribution plan.
Because the police department officers also agreed to waive their rights to Social Security benefits in the 1950s — as long as they received a guaranteed pension — McHale explained that officers could not accept a 401(k) without the restoration of Social Security benefits.
“You cannot in good conscience say the men and women sitting behind me should continue to risk their lives with a guaranteed 401(k),” McHale told the commission.
Sarasota Police Chief Mikel Hollaway and his captains confirmed for the commission what more than two-dozen officers publicly stated during a five-hour hearing that stretched until 11 p.m.
“Policing one’s community is like a marriage based on commitment that must endure even during tough times,” Hollaway said. “I wouldn’t commit to a career in law enforcement today with just a 401(k).”
The wide support from officers and residents convinced the city’s five commissioners to back away from a city staff suggestion to convert the officers’ pension plans to 401(k) plans.
Vice Mayor Terry Turner, who had urged staff to cut more expenses in this year’s budget, and who has complained of high personnel costs, made a motion to keep the pension plans for current and future police officers, while reducing a cost-of-living allowance pension modification from 3.2% to 1%.
Currently, a police officer who retires at age 50 would get his 3.2% cost-of-living pension allowance immediately.
Turner’s proposal means officers would have to wait until they are 65 years old to receive the decreased, 1% cost-of-living pension allowance.
The proposal, Finance Director Chris Lyons said, would reduce pension costs considerably over time, but he had no estimate for the total savings.
If the city had approved the status quo pension plan without the cost-of-living adjustment, the plan would have cost the city approximately $132 million over the next 30 years.
Turner acknowledged his decision might be surprising to his fellow commissioners and the public.
“I know I’m a real hawk with defined benefits, but I see a real problem here,” Turner said.
The rest of the commission agreed, noting that the decision was just for a contract that expired Sept. 30. The city and its police officers right away must begin negotiating a new long-term contract.
Realizing that, the commission also supported a motion by Commissioner Willie Shaw to direct staff to continue negotiating Social Security benefits for officers in case further pension modifications are part of a new contract.
Commissioner Paul Caragiulo expressed frustration Wednesday with the whole process: “Now we get to come back and do this all over again.”
Police pension changes approved
The Sarasota City Commission Monday made the following decisions regarding the Sarasota Police Department’s pension plan:
• Pension plans stay intact for current and future police officers.
• A cost-of-living pension allowance was reduced from 3.2% to 1%; it will be paid out at age 65 instead of at age 50.
• A decrease from 6.5% to 2.5% was approved for the Deferred Retirement Option Program (DROP).
• A 300-hour overtime limit was implemented for payouts for pension purposes.
• Retirement qualifications remain the same: 25 years of service or 10 years of service after turning 50 years of age.
• No change to disability benefits was approved.