O'Brien: Fire, police pensions require cooperation

O'Brien: Fire, police pensions require cooperation

February 2nd, 2014 By Sean O'Brien in Opinion Columns

Sean O'Brien, president-elect of the Fraternal Order of Police, speaks during a meeting of the Chattanooga Fire and Police Pension Board in this Jan, 16, 2014, file photo.

Photo by Angela Lewis/Times Free Press.

In coming days, the Pension Task Force, Chattanooga Fire and Police Pension Fund board and the Chattanooga City Council will discuss and evaluate proposed changes to the Fire and Police Pension Fund.

Few subjects in the public domain rightfully elicit a more passionate debate than the retirement of men and women who have dedicated their professional lives to serving the citizens of Chattanooga in a noble commission, often coupled with unnerving peril. It is for this very reason that the truth must pierce the clutter.

With more than $150 million in unfunded liability, the long-term health of the pension fund is tenuous. Further, with taxpayer funded contributions at $14 million annually and climbing, the pension fund passes from an obligation, through a liability, and into the realm of a practical impossibility.

The reasons for this reality are not simple and singular. However, the last five years alone have shown that, across this country, the financial burden of unhealthy defined-benefit plans has been a catalyst for significant and often unsettling transformations.

We, as employees, retirees, taxpayers and elected leaders, could choose to avoid this certainty and go the way of the inept discourse in Washington, D.C. Or, we can choose to signal a period of accomplished collaboration. As with any debate, there are many voices to be heard and thoughts to be enumerated. The last months have revealed that such a dialogue can come about right here in Chattanooga.

When Mayor Berke made known that he believed it was vital to address the health of the Pension Fund, the skepticism was palpable. Employees and retirees had heard this before, from political pretenders. Such notions, coupled with the historical erosion of employee benefits, widened the gap of distrust.

It was only through the arduous Pension Task Force process that the authenticity of Mayor Berke's intentions was established.

This process had four elements that were noteworthy and fundamentally transformative. First, the building of the Pension Task Force included a diversity of perspective. Representatives of employees, retirees, department leaders, taxpayers, the Chattanooga Fire & Pension Fund board and City Hall were all included.

Second, there was a concerted effort to fully understand the complex nature of the challenges facing the pension fund. Third, stakeholders were able to articulate their tenets and trepidations in depth.

Lastly, participants were receptive and willing to listen. This allowed for a lengthy and vigorous exchange of concepts.

The resulting recommendations to be put forth by the Pension Task Force are strong, fair and relevant.

This is because the defined benefit structure is maintained, including a COLA, while the financial foundation of the fund is secured for the future.

In addition, the taxpayers are relieved of a ballooning burden. The efforts put forth by groups such as the International Association of Fire Fighters, International Brotherhood of Police Officers and Fraternal Order of Police to articulate the needs of their active and retired members were tenacious and tireless.

There is no joy in the restructuring of our pension fund, and there will be those who voice opposition.

Opposition delivered in a professional and respectful manner is healthy. Disagreement based solely on self-interest while forsaking the needs of other employees and retirees is myopic.

There are other, significant issues facing the City of Chattanooga today as well. If this pension reform process is a bellwether of future efforts by Mayor Berke, the future is promising.

Master Patrol Officer Sean O'Brien is president of the Fraternal Order of Police, Rock City Lodge #22, Chattanooga. He was one of 18 people on the Pension Task Force.