'Trim your fat before you pick our bones,' pension reform protesters tell Chattanooga City Council

'Trim your fat before you pick our bones,' pension reform protesters tell Chattanooga City Council

February 5th, 2014 by Joy Lukachick Smith in Local Regional News

Chattanooga fire captain Ron Delker, from left, retired policeman Ezra Harris and retired fireman Bill York walk with 30 others to City Hall for a City Council meeting Tuesday in protest of Chattanooga Mayor Andy Berke's recent pension reform.

Photo by Tim Barber/Times Free Press.

Chattnooga Mayor Andy Berke

Photo by Doug Strickland/Times Free Press.

Current firefighter's Richard Meier, left, and Tim Zink walk with retired firefighter Greg Gaston and more than 30 police and firefighters march to City Hall for a City Council meeting Tuesday in protest of Chattanooga Mayor Andy Berke's recent pension reform.

Photo by Tim Barber/Times Free Press.

In single file, more than three dozen firefighters and police officers, active and retired, marched to Tuesday's City Council meeting waving signs in bold shades of blue and red.

"Trim your fat before you pick our bones."

"Fire and Police only want what was promised."

In the coming weeks, the council will vote whether to accept Chattanooga Mayor Andy Berke's fire and police pension reform, and throughout Tuesday's meeting the public safety employees held their signs in plain view of council members.

When it was time for public comments, several retired employees rose to speak.

"We gave faithful service to this city, and we don't need you up here taking things away from us," said Ron Delker, a retired Chattanooga Fire Department captain.

Delker said he retired after his first heart attack at 50, drawing a pension of $27,000 a year, so the 3 percent cost of living adjustment makes a huge difference over the years.

Tuesday's protest was in response to pending changes to the Fire and Police Pension Fund that will hike employee pension contributions by as much as 37 percent and reduce cost-of-living adjustments for retirees, while saving the city as much as $4 million to $5 million a year. The city says the changes are needed to make the plan sustainable.

Since the consensus agreement was reached, union leaders and city officials have said the majority of public safety employees accept the plan. After Tuesday night's meeting, several officials said they still believe that to be true and that those who are dissatisfied represent only a small pocket of firefighters and officers.

"The opposing opinions being shared do not reflect what the board has heard from the majority of retired or active firefighters and police officers who believe the consensus agreement is a reasonable solution to the pension issue," said Vince Butler, a spokesman for the Fire and Police Pension board, the other body that must approve the reform before it can take effect.

City Council members, who will finalize the reform with the final vote after the pension board votes, said they heard the officers and firefighters.

"I'm listening to what they have to say," Councilman Chip Henderson said.

But during the public comments, Council Chairman Yusuf Hakeem had words for several of the speakers.

Retired police officer Johnny Frazier accused the city of not paying enough into the pension fund and blamed officials for the state of the fund. Hakeem cut him off.

Yusuf Hakeem

Photo by John Rawlston/Times Free Press.

"I take issue with these items," Hakeem said, pointing at Frazier. "We're not going to have back and forth on this."

Pension officials along with Berke's task force contend that the pension is underfunded -- it stands at about 60 percent -- because of benefit increases that took effect in 1999 and the stock market crash in 2008.

After the meeting, Hakeem said he will take into account the opposition to the reform. He said he spoke out with some of the public safety workers because he didn't want information misconstrued.

"I thought there was misrepresentation on what they were saying," he said. "If you allow misrepresentations to go unchallenged enough, they become reality in some people's minds."

In July, Berke appointed an 18-member pension task force to find a way to cut the city's $150 million unfunded liability while maintaining a retirement plan that attracts a good workforce. The consensus plan was arrived at after task force members and union leaders emerged from a 13-hour closed door meeting.

This week, the pension board delayed voting on the reform pending actuarial estimates.

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