published Tuesday, October 8th, 2013

Pension board suggests officers not be eligible to retire until age 50

For years Chattanooga officials and fire and police retirement board members have debated how to keep the city's benefits stable and city costs reasonable, but Monday night the pension board made the first move, offering to reinstate an age requirement to retire.

The Fire and Police Pension Board recommended that firefighters and police officers not be eligible to retire until age 50 at Monday night's task force meeting. The plan has not had a minimum retirement age since 1999, when the age 55 requirement was eliminated.

This recommendation came before any decision could be reached by Chattanooga Mayor Andy Berke's 18-member task force appointed this summer to study the fund and find a way to make the fund solvent, continue recruiting quality employees and be responsible to taxpayers.

"All we wanted to do was kick-start the process," said pension board President Chris Willmore. "This is not a knee-jerk reaction by any means."

Reaction from the crowd at Monday night's meeting where police officers in uniform and firefighters in red T-shirts stood in the back of the room was minimal publicly. But the silence was broken when one firefighter stood.

"Twenty-five years of service is 25 years of service," said firefighter Richard Meier, questioning changes to the age of eligibility. "We do our jobs; we're hoping you do yours."

The applause roared through the fourth floor of the Chattanooga Public Library.

The board also recommended that fire and police officers cost of living adjustments should be based on market value as opposed to an automatic 3 percent adjustment. The request came with a trade-off: reinstate a specific disability benefit and an extra benefit for widows whose spouses were hired before 1992.

Several firefighters said they felt like part of the proposal was fair, but that the task force shouldn't impose an age requirement.

Berke's Chief of Staff Travis McDonough said he saw the pension board's proposal as a good sign that they are open to compromising.

Berke appointed the task force in August to study the pension fund, but the mayor announced his plan without first telling the pension board, sparking controversy. This prompted board members to discredit the mayor's description of the fund in their board meeting and the mayor's office in return to ask union leaders to sign a letter criticizing the pension board.

This was the second time in recent history when a mayor has tried to stabilize the pension fund with push back from board members and police and firefighters. Former Mayor Ron Littlefield also formed a task force after the 2008 stock market collapse, but an overall consensus to fund the plan fully couldn't be reached.

Meanwhile the funding shortfall continued to mount to 60 percent funding levels with a projected $150 million shortfall, prompting Berke to call for the task force and hire a consulting firm, The PFM Group.

McDonough said the task force, made up of 10 active and retired firefighters and police officers and eight community leaders, will consider the board's recommendations before they meet at the end of the month.

When asked why the pension board didn't make these proposals before the task force was formed, Willmore said the recommendations are based on two years of studying the fund.

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

about Joy Lukachick...

Joy Lukachick is the city government reporter for the Chattanooga Times Free Press Since 2009, she's covered breaking news, high-profile trials, stories of lost lives and of regained hope and done investigative work. Raised near the Bayou, Joy’s hometown is along the outskirts of Baton Rouge, La. She has a bachelor’s degree in mass communication from Louisiana State University. While at LSU, Joy was a staff writer for the Daily Reveille. When Joy isn't chasing ...

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