Police object to pension proposal

Council members say $115,000-a-year package is all city can afford

`This is not acceptable'

April 14, 2002|By Athima Chansanchai | Athima Chansanchai,SUN STAFF

A supplemental retirement plan for Westminster's Police Department unveiled at last week's Common Council meeting was supposed to satisfy dual goals of attracting and keeping city officers, but they don't like it.

"This is not what they promised. This is not acceptable," said Daniel W. Besseck, International Union of Police Associations representative, who attended Thursday night's emergency meeting of the Westminster Police Association. Eight of 38 association members were in attendance.

Besseck was referring to the plan proposed by Westminster Councilman Roy L. Chiavacci, who serves as chairman of the council's Public Safety Committee. The plan would require the city to deposit the equivalent of 5 percent to 9 percent of an officer's annual salary - depending on years of service - into an account similar to a savings plan. It would cost the city $115,000 a year.

"The council's job is to make sure their employees are taken care of. It should be their primary responsibility. This is a slap in the face," Besseck said.

Members of the Common Council said the plan was a good one and all the city could afford as it faces a $2.3 million deficit.

Besseck's group has been working with Westminster police Local 84 for the last two years to revamp the department's current retirement plan, a state pension system that returns 32 percent to 42 percent of the average of three consecutive years of an officer's highest salaries, after 30 years.

Officers at the meeting said that amount isn't enough to live on, especially if they have a family. One officer said he would receive only $1,026 a month in benefits if he were begin drawing from it when he retires in 2023.

Most officers said they would prefer the city use the Law Enforcement Officers' Pension System, or LEOPS, which returns 50 percent of an officer's salary after 25 years of service. According to the city's studies, this would cost $364,000 a year, or $17 million over 25 years.

"Though we're on a smaller scale than Baltimore City, the overall stress level doesn't change. You still put your life on the line every day," Besseck said.

"What's important here is that we work with the police officers and take into consideration their thoughts and feelings and be responsive to their needs," Mayor Kevin E. Dayhoff said. "I truly believe the council worked on this with a sense of caring, depth and integrity.

"I understand clearly that the budget will not allow the city to go in the direction of LEOPS this year, but I would rather that we wait and do LEOPS when it's financially feasible than go to a pension enhancement plan."

Council President Damian L. Halstad said there was an involved series of discussions concerning the retirement options, and of them all, the plan proposed by Chiavacci was the most viable.

"LEOPS is not fiscally possible or prudent," said Halstad. "We're talking about this in a vacuum. We have to remember that there is a $2.3 million shortfall we have to trim from the budget, but the city is still willing to find money to implement this plan. ...

"Some people even view the whole plan as much too generous a windfall for the Police Department. The council showed great commitment to the force by moving this forward."

Police Chief Roger G. Joneckis said he would not comment on the program until he learned more about it.

He mentioned steps the city has taken to improve the department's situation, including pay raises and increased hiring to bring staffing to the full complement of 43 officers.

The union has been pushing for better retirement benefits to keep senior officers from pursuing jobs in other departments.

"They continue to train new people. You can fill bodies but not experience," Besseck said. "Maturity is everything in this job."

Chiavacci hopes officers change their views when they're given an opportunity for personal projections of their supplemental benefits on April 24.

"We tried to craft a plan that was both desirable and affordable, and quite frankly, it's generous," Chiavacci said.

He said he's disappointed by the negative reaction of some officers, but that he wants to hear what they have to say.

"If they did that, they can help us make it better than what it is. I welcome that input," he said.

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