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Task Force recommends changes for benefits for current police and fire workers
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Task Force recommends changes for benefits for current police and fire workers

Task Force recommends changes for benefits for current police and fire workers
Photo Credit: Stephanie Brown

Task Force recommends changes for benefits for current police and fire workers

The key to keeping a skilled workforce of first responders in Jacksonville? Long term stability.

The obstacle keeping that at bay? Ongoing attempts at pension reform.

The main concerns coming from both Jacksonville Sheriff John Rutherford and Fire Chief Marty Senterfitt, and feedback the Retirement Reform Task Force ultimately considered when making some big recommendations today.

Rutherford speaking first talked about some of the challenges he already faces recruiting to JSO. He says because there is now a 4-year degree requirement and more weight put behind education overall, they can’t just draw from the same pool they used to. He says he’s competing not just against police forces in other cities, but other industries as well vying for educated workers.

Getting the recruits trained properly is also a costly and front-loaded endeavor- averaging $70,000 according to Rutherford. In addition to recruiting challenges, some of the changes proposed to current employees could cause issues with retaining talent, and Rutherford says that equates to losing all the money put in to training.

Senterfitt took that one step further to say if retention does prove to become an issue, he would likely have to cut back on the amount of training provided to new firefighters for financial reasons.  He told the Task Force that although the number of fires they respond to has fallen, the type of fires are increasingly hazardous- including those involving chemicals or other toxic materials. Cutting back on training, therefore, could put everyone involved in these fires at risk, according to Senterfitt.

He also said that comparing the benefits earned by firefighters to those earned by other employees isn’t a true comparison, because the average firefighter works a 56 hour week, rather than 40.

All that being said, Senterfitt says JFRD currently retains about 90% of its firefighters, and JSO estimates is retentions is not far below that. While it’s unclear exactly what kind of ramification this change in benefits could have, Jacksonville Association of Fire Fighters President Randy Wyse says it could be substantial.

“It’s something they [firefighters] were promised a long time ago, and now they’re [Task Force] all of a sudden going to change that,” he says.

Wyse was specifically responding to a recommendation made by the Task Force today to adopt a few portions of the Mayor’s most recent proposal, specifically those dealing with the pension design.

The first step taken by the Task Force today was deciding which plan to pursue.  There were multiple options on the table, including hybrid plans which would have invested some of the money in to something like a 401k- adding some more risk, but a potentially higher payout. Both Rutherford and Senterfitt were against a hybrid plan because of that risk, and the Task Force cited those concerns when deciding instead to work on the defined settlement agreement which was put forward by the Mayor about one month ago.

For new employees, they adopted changes that are nearly the same as the ones that were agreed upon by the City, JAFF, Fraternal Order of Police Jacksonville, and Police and Fire Pension Fund last year. That plan as a whole was voted down by Jacksonville’s City Council.

This newest plan includes new changes for current employees as well. The Task Force today adopted an increased employee contribution, altered DROP rate and reduced COLA.  These recommendations are given to the parties involved in the ongoing collective bargaining and cannot be adopted until it clears there.

“I think they’re all good proposals, now whether they’ll be acceptable to the police and fire unions, that’s a different matter,” says Task Force Chair Bill Scheu.

Scheu says if those involved in collective bargaining don’t agree with their recommendations or ultimately reach an impasse under mediation, he expects the Task Force’s recommendations will have weight in front of the City Council- which would ultimately break the impasse.

But that’s only one portion of the multi-faceted review the Task Force has taken with many other recommendations, including some on pension governance, able to be put directly in front of City Council for adoption. Still to be discussed is how to fund the city’s $1.7 billion pension debt. Scheu says that will be tackled at the next meeting next week, although they may schedule yet one more for the following week.

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