published Tuesday, September 10th, 2013

Chattanooga fire, police pension panel begins task

Several Chattanooga police officers and firefighters questioned at the first pension task force meeting Monday night whether the board that governs their retirement plans will get a chance to speak.

"The jury's been set and the prosecution gave its case today. Is the defense going to present their case next time?" asked firefighter Charles Thompson. "Because this was one-sided."

Thompson wasn't given an answer.

But after the task force meeting, Mayor Andy Berke's Chief of Staff Travis McDonough said the mayor wants a "set of fresh eyes" to look at the current status of the Police and Fire Pension fund, but they believe the pension board is adequately represented within the task force.

Monday night was the Fire and Police Pension Task Force's first meeting since Berke announced in July that the public safety pension fund could be in jeopardy if something doesn't change.

Faced with a nearly $150 million shortfall in the pension fund, Berke brought in a consulting firm, The PFM Group, to work with the task force to reach a consensus. The 18-board task force picked by the mayor was then commissioned to reach an agreement by December that will help stabilize the fund.

Before the task force members were named in August, there was tension between the Fire and Police Pension Board and Berke's staff. Board members decried the mayor's depiction of the fund as in jeopardy at their August board meeting and later, Berke's staff tried to get union leaders to sign a prewritten letter criticizing their pension board.

Berke gave the pension board two seats on the task force as well as a leader from the local firefighter and police unions.

Former Pension Board President Terry Knowles, who is on the task force, said after Monday's meeting that he was encouraged by what was said and hopes they will be able to reach an agreement.

The meeting began with McDonough, who told the task force made up of 10 active and retired firefighters and police officers and eight community leaders that they need to come up with a solution that will retain quality workers and that is responsible to taxpayers.

Then PFM Group director Vijay Kapoor gave a two-hour presentation of the state of the pension fund outlining their recent work with Lexington, Kentucky where a task force was able to reach a consensus lowering their unfunded liability by 45 percent.

"Even though this process will be difficult at times and will be heated at times, reaching a consensus agreement that addresses these issues in the long term is really the best for everyone in the long run," Kapoor told the group. "We're not viewing this as a math problem."

Right now there are many solutions on the table such as looking at: setting a minimum retirement age, raising the contribution rate for workers and the city, cutting disability and retirement benefits and requiring new employees to work longer to get full retirement benefits.

Several firefighters and police officers said they were concerned about having their cost-of-living adjustments cut or taken away.

"My wife has MS and I'm concerned about the cost of living adjustments," said retired police Sgt. Ralph Brown. "We have to pay for insurance premiums and it goes up every year."

At next month's meeting, the task force will examine the history of the pension fund benefits and city contributions and compare Chattanooga's police and fire pension fund to other cities.

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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