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High cost of pensions straps cities

By A TIMES EDITORIAL
Published June 12, 2007


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The three-step method to soaring public pensions in Florida has typically worked this way: 1) Law enforcement union lobbyists tell legislators to increase the formula; 2) Lawmakers ask "how high, " and, 3) Cities and counties get stuck with the bill.

Whether local governments can afford these lucrative retirement plans for deputies and police and firefighters at a time when private companies are shedding pension plans is a reasonable public policy question. But the point this week is that lawmakers are trying to have it both ways. In many cases, they are the ones who have voted to enhance the pension benefits but are now blaming mayors and commissioners for a spending spree.

The pension contributions by no means account for all the extra local government spending in recent years, but their costs far outstrip any general cost-of-living spending cap the Legislature is trying to impose. The Florida Association of Counties reports that pension costs jumped $273-million, or 63 percent, in the past six years. In St. Petersburg, police pensions have jumped 166 percent in the past five years.

The fluctuating financial markets are a significant factor, but the state establishes the level of benefits for all county, sheriff and school employees and many city employees. So when the state decided to include medical technicians and forensics specialists in the category of high risk, for example, it was also sending the bill to counties. High-risk employees receive 90 percent of their salary, along with cost-of-living adjustments, after 30 years of service.

Former Gov. Jeb Bush did try to cut pensions for many state employees, but the Legislature stopped him. Now lawmakers are acting as though pensions are divorced from the rising cost of public safety. At a state gathering of firefighters on Friday, Gov. Charlie Crist went so far as to promise that "not one person" would lose a firefighting job to the property tax cuts now being considered. Does he make the same pledge about their pensions?

Pensions are part of the cost of providing law enforcement in Florida, and lawmakers have contributed to their escalation.

[Last modified June 11, 2007, 21:41:32]


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