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Politics

Government Worker Unions Speak Out Against Pension Reform

February 21, 2011 - 6:00pm

Hundreds of police officers, firefighters and union representatives from throughout the state packed a Senate workshop meeting Tuesday on pension reform, voicing their opposition to bills that would reduce their pension benefits.

The two bills, both sponsored by Sen. Jeremy Ring, D-Margate, who chairs the Governmental Oversight and Accountability Committee, require employees to contribute to their own pension plans; require local governments to use at least five years in determining an employees average final compensation; prohibit local governments from offering defined benefit plans after July 1; and eliminate overtime, unused leave and other payments from being used in determining pension compensation.

The bills do not go as far as the reforms called for by Gov. Rick Scotts budget recommendations, which suggested the elimination of the Deferred Retirement Option Program, eliminating the cost-of-living adjustment and reducing the annual service credit.

Scott says the reforms will save the state $2.8 billion over the next two years. Ring said specific savings statistics for his bills arent yet available, but savings that arent achieved through pension reform must be gained elsewhere with the state facing a $3.6 billion deficit.

Union officials expressed concern over the stripping of local control of pensions for local government workers.

You cant fix all these problems with a broad brush, said John McNamara, president of the Metro Broward Professional Fire Fighters, Local 3080.

Besides Floridas budget hole, legislators point to mismanagement in some Florida cities -- that are paying more than 50 percent of their general revenue for salaries and pension benefits -- as another major reason for seeking reform.

Ring recognized that most cities in Florida are responsible, but that if some cities default on bonds it could lead to a ripple effect that drags down the bond ratings of surrounding cities.

We talked about the ripple effect of these cities that arent being responsible. What is the risk factor? Ring said.

Despite those concerns, Ring appears to favor amendments to his bill that would let local governments retain their ability to negotiate their own contracts with unions.

Sen. Jack Latvala, R-St. Petersburg, offered amendments that would eliminate the provisions in Rings bill that would prohibit local governments from offering defined benefit retirement plans and require them to use at least five years in determining final compensation. Another amendment would allow governments to use up to 300 hours of overtime, in addition to base pay, in calculating pension compensations.

Union representatives welcomed the amendments but are still wary of reform.

I certainly appreciate the amendments that are being offered, said Mark Mirth, president of the Cape Coral Professional Fire Fighters, Local 242.

Others in Mirths town, however, werent so eager to see the amendments, and would like to see pension reforms go further.

Overtime and other pay should not be included in determining pension benefits, said Cape Coral Mayor John Sullivan.

The committee did not vote on the bills or the amendments but could take action when they meet again Thursday.

Reach Gray Rohrer at grohrer@sunshinestatenews.com or at (850) 727-0859.

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