The state Supreme Court just added another powerful incentive to carefully consider a merger or joint powers agreement for Rim Country’s valiant, but scattered fire departments. The court overturned an effort by the state Legislature to reduce the rapidly rising cost of pensions for judges, prison guards, police officers and firefighters. The Legislature cut the inflation adjustment in pension payments for retired public safety and criminal justice workers. The Legislature acted because the drop in the stock market, the surge in early retirements and various incentives added meant that the system had promised more than it could deliver.
The court probably did the right thing because voters years ago adopted an initiative that said public safety pensions and benefits cannot be reduced. The Legislature should have put a reform plan on the ballot, instead of arrogantly ignoring the voters.
Not that the system doesn’t need reform.
The current system offers a lifetime payment after 20 years of sometimes dangerous service. However, in a world where most private businesses have switched to 401(k) retirement investment accounts that sharply limit the long-term costs to employers, the lifetime payments after 20 years of service remain an expensive anomaly. Granted, it’s nothing compared to a congressional pension, which vests in five years and pays in full at age 62 or after 25 years of service. The average congressional pension is about $50,000 annually.
But the decision will likely impose heavy costs on counties and towns. Some estimates suggest towns may soon have to pay 50 percent of a public safety worker’s salary into the state’s retirement system.
Under those circumstances, we’re glad the region’s fire departments are discussing how they can cut overhead, coordinate services and avoid duplication. Clearly, we’re at the start of a long and difficult discussion. On one hand, you have volunteer-dependent departments like Houston Mesa, which has in the past several years cut response times from 14 to 5 minutes providing full training and certifications for its volunteers. On the other hand, you have the professional, full-time firefighters and paramedics serving Payson and the Pine-Strawberry fire departments. All these dedicated firefighters already back each other up on the front line — but the departments haven’t fully coordinated or rationalized the system.
The Hellsgate Fire Board started the process last week by listening to a careful presentation on the benefits — and challenges — of forging new relationships.
The Supreme Court decision should serve to underscore the seriousness of the discussion. Firefighters save lives — and have repeatedly saved the whole community by preventing house fires from spreading into the dangerously overgrown forest. We need well-trained, well-equipped fire departments. But that doesn’t mean we can afford to waste money duplicating services, piling on administrators and failing to fully coordinate this life-saving effort.