published Monday, February 3rd, 2014

Vote on Chattanooga police and firefighter pension changes delayed

The Fire and Police Pension Board office is at 6009 John Douglass Drive.
The Fire and Police Pension Board office is at 6009 John Douglass Drive.
Photo by Dan Henry /Chattanooga Times Free Press.
  • photo
    Chattanooga Mayor Andy Berke, surrounded by police and firefighter union leaders, announces an agreement concerning the police and firefighters pension plan today at the Fraternal Order of Police headquarters on Holtzclaw Ave. in this file photo.
    Photo by Tim Barber.
    enlarge photo

Days before Thursday's expected vote on Chattanooga Mayor Andy Berke's reforms to the police and firefighter retirement plan, board members said the vote will be postponed.

The actuaries calculating whether the proposed pension changes will save the city $4 million to $5 million a year and significantly reduce the city's unfunded liability haven't completed their estimates, Fire and Police Pension Fund President Chris Willmore said Friday. He couldn't say when the vote will take place.

Meanwhile, several police officers and firefighters, retired and active, are attempting to mount a campaign against the reform reached by Berke's 18-member task force after 13 hours behind closed doors on Jan. 8. The next day, Berke accepted the plan, which would hike employee contributions by as much as 37 percent and cut cost-of-living adjustments to save the city as much as $200 million over 26 years.

Berke formed the task force in August to find a way to reduce a $150 million unfunded liability to the Fire and Police Pension fund, which is only about 60 percent funded.

Firefighter Chip O'Dell said about 50 employees came to a Jan. 26 meeting. Several plan to confront the City Council on Tuesday, he said, to say they believe the changes protect the highest-paid employees and disproportionately harm those in the middle and lower-paid ranks.

The officers want the task force to look at capping the pension at a topped-out captain's pay rate.

"We just want people to know also this pension is what we depend on," O'Dell said. "This pension is our lifeline."

Willmore, several union leaders and the city officials said the resistance represents only a small number of workers. The idea to cap pay would save the city only about $13,000 in its annual contribution.

"I think they claim they represent a larger amount of people than they actually do," Willmore said, explaining that was based on his conversations with other employees.

But O'Dell wrote in a letter to the City Council that employees are afraid to speak out.

"You have not heard much opposition to the task force's recent proposal because it is being silently suppressed," O'Dell wrote. "Departmental emails have been issued warning firefighters to be careful of what they put on social media."

On Jan. 14, firefighter Chad Rogers posted his opposition on a popular Facebook site that is critical of the mayor's office.

"We got shafted. It's a pay cut!!! I'm tired of everyone saying they are pleased with this agreement," Rogers wrote. "The union, our admin, and anyone who says they are pleased with this proposal/agreement does not represent me and most of the Fire Dept."

A few days later, he said, he was called into Fire Chief Lamar Flint's office and showed a printout of what he wrote on Facebook. Rogers said he was told to be careful what he wrote on Facebook, but he wasn't asked to stop posting altogether.

"It's really frustrating for guys in my position. We aren't in a union; we don't have a voice," Rogers said Friday. "A lot of my Facebook rants and postings were out of frustration."

Flint said in an email that the meeting was more like "a round table setting," and he called it "a good meeting."

City spokeswoman Lacie Stone confirmed that fire officials sent an email on Jan. 16 to the firefighters that said: "If you are making statements on social media and naming Chattanooga Fire Department in your statements, please reframe [sic] from representing the CFD in a negative manner."

The city doesn't have a social media policy, but the police and fire departments have standard operating procedures that stipulate employees must be respectful in public and courteous to those in authority.

Berke's chief of staff, Travis McDonough, has said the administration worked hard to represent active and retired police officers and firefighters and that more than half the task force was made up of law enforcement.

"We spent time doing things the right way," he said. "We think we have a package that is fair."

Jack Thompson is president of Chattanooga Fire Fighters Association Local 820, which represents nearly half of the active Chattanooga firefighters. He said most of those he's spoken with understand cuts need to be made and accept the changes.

One of the retired officers in the group opposed to the changes has asked for legal advice in Nashville to see whether there are grounds to sue the city. Retired officer Johnny Frazier emailed a law firm Jan. 30, according to a copy of the email obtained by the Times Free Press.

"From my reading of the pension legislation ... they can't do this," Frazier said. "We're not wanting to proceed with a lawsuit, but if we have grounds and they pass this thing, that's what we're looking at next."

McDonough said he believes the reform is legally sound, and a legal team is evaluating the plan.

But no one will do anything until the two actuary firms calculate the numbers and the plan is finalized. McDonough said the task force should hold its final public meeting in a week or two, before the Fire and Police Pension Board vote.

If the pension board approves, the next and last vote is in the City Council.

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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