An irritated Payson Town Council reluctantly approved an emergency ordinance to comply with a new state law that will increase payments for any workmen’s compensation claims filed by police officers.
The Legislature adopted House Bill 2643 as a “strike all” measure, which means lawmakers slipped new wording into a bill that had already passed through committee hearings. Most such strike all measures go directly to a floor vote without hearings on the impacts.
The bill will require cities, towns and counties to pay full salaries for police officers and other public safety workers so long as they’re on worker’s compensation. Previously, towns could adopt policies that would pay less than full salary.
“It’s just one more example of our Legislature saying one thing and doing another,” said Payson Mayor Kenny Evans.
State lawmakers routinely rail against “unfunded mandates” imposed by the federal government on the states, but then impose unfunded mandates of their own on cities and towns, concluded Evans.
Still, Town Attorney Tim Wright said the council had no choice but to comply with the law and adopt an overhaul of the personnel manual as an emergency measure, without the usual hearings and waiting periods.
Disgusted, Evans moved adoption of the changes.
Councilor Fred Carpenter then chipped in, saying, “second — reluctantly.”
“Moved and seconded,” said Evans, “reluctantly.”
The Legislature has approved a series of measures that have affected the bottom line of struggling cities and towns. Moreover, the state constitution prevents cities and towns from making almost any change in public employee pensions. As a result, Payson and other towns have started to develop a two-tier system, with employees enjoying different benefits and making different co-pays based on when they were hired.
The legislative analysis of the bill said it would have no impact on the state financially, but noted it will affect local governments.
The upgrade in public safety benefits this year came despite mounting signs that the state’s public employee pensions and benefits continue to veer toward a financial cliff.
A study by the PEW Foundation concluded that the state’s pension system has strayed into the “red zone,” especially the Public Safety Personnel Retirement System.
Normally, healthy public-employee pension plans must have a funding stream that will cover at least 80 percent of the anticipated payouts to current and future retirees. But the state public safety system is funded at just 56 percent of the projected need.
Police officers and firefighters have among the best retirement plans in the state and many can retire at nearly full salary for life after 20 years on the job. They often collect those benefits at a relatively young age even if they get another job. Few workers in the private sector can start collecting pensions until they’re at least 62.
Moreover, most public employees enjoy benefit systems that allow them to collect full salary for any unused sick time, a provision rare in the private sector. One recent study concluded that the average public employee collects about $11,000 in unused sick time at retirement — but some high-paid police officials with long careers have collected $100,000 to $150,000 upon retirement.
Moreover, Payson and other towns also offer generous health care benefits for retirees. Payson contributes about $17,000 per retiree to provide health care benefits for life. The town’s efforts to increase the co-pay for retirees as its costs rose ran afoul of the court cases barring any change in benefits already earned.
The PEW report noted that on average, towns contribute about 23 percent of each officer’s salary to the public safety pension plan. Police unions sued when several towns attempted to increase officer’s contributions to sustain the plan, but a judge ruled that any mandated increase in contributions by current employees violated the state constitution. As a result, towns will have to increase their contributions to 27 percent of salary.
The PEW report said that bringing the pension plan up to full funding in 2010 would have cost $12 billion — which is about 30 percent larger than the state’s entire, annual general fund budget.