BY THE NUMBERS
* 449: Number of police officers the city had employed in 1999 when changes to the deferred retirement option plan were made
* 408: Number of police officers currently on city payroll
* 20: Number of fire stations in 1999
* 18: Current number of city fire stations
Source: Chattanooga Fire & Police Pension Fund
Chattanooga Councilman Jack Benson backpedaled Tuesday after Fire and Police Pension Fund board members told him that any changes to the current retirement plan could backfire and lead to lower recruitment and retention efforts.
“I’m beginning to change my mind on things now,” Benson said during a meeting on the Fire and Police Pension Fund.
Benson previously had said the city should evaluate whether news hires should have a 401(k)-type retirement plan.
But a plea from an accountant who oversees investment of the current retirement plan left some council members rethinking how changes should be made.
Ray Ryan, investment counsel with Patten and Patten Inc. and a Fire and Police Pension Fund board member, told council members that, if they wanted to think only about cutting costs, they should look at approaches such as a 401(k)-style plan.
But police and firefighters should be treated differently because they do not qualify for Social Security, have only their pension to live on for the rest of their lives and retire earlier than most public-sector workers because of the stress associated with their jobs, he said.
“They have to live with the retirement they get, and that’s it,” Ryan said.
Some council members have made comments over the last few months about looking at changes to the Fire and Police Pension Fund for new hires as a way to save taxpayer money in the future. But Ryan said that would be a mistake.
Such changes would affect current members of the plan, he said, by not having as many people contributing. That would mean a lower return of investment on the plan and could lead to vastly diminished pensions for those vested in the program, he said.
Councilman Peter Murphy asked if there are other alternatives, such as allowing firefighters and police officers to have a supplemental 401(k)-type plan along with the pension.
Ryan said that would only lead to officers having less take-home pay.
“They’re already contributing 9 percent to the pension plan,” he said.
At the meeting, Benson at first said that no council members had suggested reneging on the original pension fund agreement with current city employees. But he said the city needs to look at all cost-saving measures.
“There’s only so much you can get out of the public trough,” he said.
But at the meeting’s conclusion, he said he was beginning to understand the differences between his own experiences as a former educator and those in public safety.
He said he was familiar with 401(k)-style plans through his years as an educator.
But those in education do not do the same things as firefighters and police officers, he said.
“They aren’t climbing up a ladder or chasing down a criminal,” he said.