As the City of Berea looks for new ways to recruit and retain police officers and firefighters, council members are taking a fresh look at a solution that’s been kicked around for years: hazardous duty retirement benefits for Berea’s first responders.
The proposal was discussed last week during a work session of the council as city leaders studied the spending plan for the 2021-2022 budget. Under one plan, the city would increase pension expenditures to $487,014 to enroll the city in the state hazardous duty retirement benefit plan. The city would then offset that cost by leaving five currently vacant positions – three police officers and two firefighters – unfilled.
Some councilmembers have long advocated enrolling Berea in the hazardous duty program on the theory that not offering it makes the city less competitive when it comes to recruiting and retaining first responders. Under the state program, Berea’s first responders would divert three percent of their salary to subsidize their own pensions, while the state also provides a contribution. That allows police officers and firefighters to retire earlier, but it also enables the city to retain a younger workforce in hazardous jobs. The benefits are currently only available to police officers and firefighters.
Councilmember Cora Jane Wilson, who was a former employee of the city, said for years she watched Berea pay to train police officers and firefighters only to have them leave for positions in cities that offer hazardous duty retirement benefits. “We’re training officers and fireman, and they are going off to greener pastures,” Wilson said.
Councilman John Payne agreed, noting the city has to remain competitive. “If our retention is not diminished because we’re not competitive with our neighboring communities, we could potentially have an even larger portion of the police service unable to fully perform tasks. Every time we hire someone new, it’s at great expense to train,” said Payne, noting that offering a better retirement package might reduce the city’s training costs in the long run.
Audit and Finance Committee Chair Steve Caudill supports the plan to enter into the program, noting Berea is the only agency in Madison County that is not enrolled. Caudill also noted that, during the last five years, the cost between having an agency hazardous versus non-hazardous has been more or less the same.
Berea City Councilmember Katie Startzman sounded a cautious note, however, stating she would like to see more data on the subject before the council makes a final decision. After hearing the city is losing many officers because of a lack of hazardous duty benefits, Startzman said she conducted from research and found the city’s attrition rate is 7.4 percent, or approximately three employees a year. That contrasts with a 14% attrition rate nationally for police officers, Startzman said.
“I feel there should be more information given to us other than anecdotes before we sign the city up for a huge liability” Startzman said, emphasizing she’s not necessary against doing it. “But I feel like we have a responsibility to really make sure we’re making smart decisions fiscally.”
At one point, Berea Police Department Chief Eric Scott addressed Startzman’s concerns, and he conceded that enrolling the city in the hazardous duty retirement benefit program may not solve all of the city’s recruiting and retention problems. He noted, however, that five former officers have expressed interest in returning to Berea should the city enroll in the program. Offering hazardous duty benefits, Scott said, would be an important first step in a larger effort to boost recruiting and retention.
While he said he doesn’t necessarily oppose enrolling in the program, Councilman Jerry Little expressed concern that the police and fire chiefs might come back later expressing a need to fill the five vacant positions, especially if the city population continues to expand. Scott pointed out that the police department has always been understaffed dating back to when David Gregory was chief, but that the department has compensated with scheduling strategies.
The debate about entering the city into the hazardous duty retirement program dates back to the mid-1990s under the administration of Mayor Clifford Kerby. Kerby maintained that because the city could not withdraw from the program once it enrolled, the program exposed the city to too much financial risk. But last week, Caudill noted that because of a law change in 2008, the city can withdraw from the hazardous duty program, though Caudill acknowledged it is a complicated and cumbersome process.
From the outset of the meeting, Caudill was adamant in his belief that because police and firefighters expose themselves to risks and hazards to protect the public, the City of Berea should avail itself to programs that will reward their willingness to serve.
“I feel strongly that it is something that we should be doing because we are statutorily allowed to for these positions,” Caudill said.
The Berea City Council is scheduled to address the issue again on Tuesday. The council would have to approve two resolutions giving the administration permission to enter into the hazardous duty retirement benefits program.