published Friday, January 17th, 2014

Chattanooga pension reform plan challenged, supported

Bill Robinson, left, and Frank Hamilton confer during a meeting of the Chattanooga Fire and Police Pension Board.
Bill Robinson, left, and Frank Hamilton confer during a meeting of the Chattanooga Fire and Police Pension Board.
Photo by Angela Lewis.

Task Force Proposal

The plan requires approval from the pension board and the City Council. Here are the key details:

• Minimum retirement age for non-vested members 50, new hires 55

• Employee contribution to go up from 8% to 11%, or 9% to 12% over the next 3 years

• Cost of living adjustments for retirees at an average of 1.5%

• The DROP will no longer include interest, and employees will have the option to stay three extra years without losing the benefit.

• Increases benefits to 100% for beneficiaries of those killed in the line of duty

In front of about 35 current and retired police officers and firefighters, retired Chattanooga Police Sgt. Kirk Salter stepped to the podium.

“I think the pension board needs to fight back,” he said. “I think the city is trying to bully us.”

Thursday was the first chance fire and police retirees and employees were able to voice their opinions on proposed changes to their pension and ask members of the Fire and Police Pension Board questions about the reforms.

Chattanooga Mayor Andy Berke’s 18-member Pension Task Force settled Jan. 8 on reforms that would increase employees’ contributions to their retirement by as much as 37 percent and cut retirees’ cost-of-living adjustments from a guaranteed 3 percent to an average of 1.5 percent.

“I say to hell with the city,” Salter said as loud applause erupted from pockets of the audience at the board meeting. He raised his voice and pounded the podium as he asked board members, who oversee employees’ retirement fund, to defend officers’ and firefighters’ benefits. Several employees expressed frustration over paying more out of their pockets and some said they wanted the recent closed-door negotiations to be public.

But several union leaders at Thursday’s meeting defended the proposal and said comments made there did not sway their opinions.

Jack Thompson, president of Chattanooga Fire Fighters Association Local 820 and a member of Berke’s task force, said he’s going to every city fire hall to talk with firefighters on multiple shifts about the proposal.

“From the people I’ve talked to, they understand the need for the change,” Thompson said. “They are OK with the changes.”

Berke Chief of Staff Travis McDonough also defended the process. The mayor’s office listened to the different interested groups, such as retirees, and made changes accordingly, he said.

“We heard the concerns of our retirees throughout this process and their input helped the Pension Task Force, including retiree representatives, come to a consensus that puts our pension plan on a healthy, sustainable path,” he said in an email.

Tensions have been high among union leaders, pension board members and officers and firefighters since Berke announced in July the need for a task force to find a way to reduce the $150 million unfunded liability in the fire and police pension fund and still retain a quality workforce.

Forty-three officers and firefighters retired early last year, among them Police Chief Bobby Dodd and most of his command staff. Dodd said possible cuts to the pension were one reason he chose to leave the department early.

Several union leaders said they went into the negotiations on Jan. 8 expecting they wouldn’t agree with the city and the reforms would go to a referendum vote. But an agreement was reached after 13 hours behind closed doors.

Fire and Police Pension Fund President Chris Willmore, who spoke out against previous plans the task force considered, has been quiet about the final proposal. He told those at the board meeting Thursday that he couldn’t comment on the plan until it’s finalized.

Currently, two actuaries are crunching the numbers to find out how much the changes will lower the city’s unfunded liability.

Willmore said he doesn’t know whether the plan will prompt more employees to leave either department. But once the figures and the plan are finalized, he will invite the employees to air their concerns before the board votes on the proposal.

Contact staff writer Joy Lukachick at jlukachick@timesfreepress.com or 423-757-6659.

about Joy Lukachick Smith...

Joy Lukachick Smith is the city government reporter for the Chattanooga Times Free Press. Since 2009, she's covered crime and court systems in North Georgia and rural Tennessee, landed an exclusive in-prison interview with a former cop convicted of killing his wife, exposed impropriety in an FBI-led, child-sex online sting and exposed corruption in government agencies. Earlier this year, Smith won the Malcolm Law Memorial Award for Investigative Reporting. She also won first place in ...

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