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Politics

Public Employees' Salary Packages Breaking Florida Cities

August 6, 2012 - 6:00pm

There are reported instances of retired public employees being paid more than those still working 40 hours per week, and if current trends persist, there will be more.

While earning more than the governor, as a Miami Beach police sergeant did, and retiring with a six-figure income at 55 is nice, the problem is not just the retirement pay. Other costs, such as health insurance for retired workers, are huge.

Florida residents may experience sticker shock as they pay for this kind of government excess while struggling to provide financial security for their own families.

Back when I was a young and relatively nae police reporter, I wrote a story about how underpaid the police were. In the 1960s, a captain in Jacksonville made about as much as a reporter.

Later, someone began my education by taking me aside and introducing me to the concept of fringe benefits.

At first, generous benefits were supposed to compensate for low pay. Public employees have proven adept over the years at ratcheting up their salaries and benefits. The police will use their political clout to get something extra, and then firefighters complain that they deserve parity. Other employees follow suit.
Furthermore, they have learned that when local politicians wont provide what they want, like a child running to Grandpa, they can go to Tallahassee and find a politician who will be willing to help.

Sweet.

Politicians love this because they can exchange promises for votes now, and stick future voters with the bill.

But, as the late Herb Stein said, "If something cannot go on forever, it will stop. One of the reasons California cities are falling like dominoes is the lavish public employee benefits politicians have dispensed like candy.

The Leroy Collins Institute says that hard times are ahead in the Sunshine State, too, unless more is done. A potentially ticking time bomb is the wording used.

The institute quotes the Florida League of Cities as saying places like Miami and St. Petersburg are seeing retirement costs that exceed 50 percent of their payrolls. The average annual retirement obligations for Florida cities in 2009 accounted for 8.3 percent of all local government expenditures. In six years costs went up 75 percent.

Local governments tend to kick the can, deferring the problem instead of addressing it now. Bradenton, Hollywood, Hialeah and Miami were among those courting disaster in the 2009 data Collins examined.

Recessions do make the situation look worse, but the problem doesnt go away when the market improves; it only looks better.

Collins left unaddressed the issue of defined contribution plans, which would have a beneficial, although long-term, effect.

The Collins Institute offers some recommendations. One is to lower fund earnings estimates. One dirty little secret is that city officials accept highly optimistic earnings scenarios for pension funds because that lowers the annual cost cities must pay to catch up on unfunded liabilities.

My recommendation: hire politicians who will look out for taxpayers -- and fire those who will not.

Lloyd Brown was in the newspaper business nearly 50 years, beginning as a copy boy and retiring as editorial page editor of the Florida Times-Union in Jacksonville. After retirement he served as speech writer for Florida Gov. Jeb Bush.

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