published: Sunday, January 27, 2013
Special magistrate called for city, fire negotiations
By SAMANTHA GHOLAR
SEBRING - City staff are bracing for a busy day Monday when staff members sit down with the Sebring Fire Department, Pension Board and a special magistrate for a long awaited meeting.
City Administrator Scott Noethlich spoke to the News-Sun in depth Friday afternoon as to what is to be expected during the first special magistrate meeting.
"A magistrate will come in and sit down with both sides ... They will give a recommendation to city staff. What is on the table is pension, removing disciplines for the bargaining contract and health insurance," Noethlich explained.
The upcoming meeting comes after a two-year dispute between the city and the fire department on a number of issues; one of the most vital being the pension.
Currently, the city of Sebring Fire Department is under what is known as a defined benefit plan. The plan is the most popular retirement and pension plan in place throughout the state and most of the country for public industry workers. Two years ago, when the city began evaluating the costs of the plan, a decision was recommended to move from the defined benefit plan to a defined contribution plan, similar to private sector 401k plans, Noetlich explains. Fire employees were quick to defend their current plans in order to maintain their future benefits and retirement funds.
Over the past two years, different variations of the old plan, as well as the proposed new plan, were presented to the fire department for approval and acceptance; none of which have been taken. The lengthy, and costly, bargaining negotiations have taken a more serious turn with the addition of a special magistrate coming into the equation.
"With a magistrate coming in it brings in a third party that is unfamiliar with what has been going on," Noethlich said. "Normally grievances would come up through the fire department to Chief (Brad) Batz then on to me ... I feel like in certain situations they (fire department employees) don't trust that things would be decided upon fairly. I feel as if they feel that we will automatically back the fire chief no matter what. I can't say that I would in every situation. There is a lot of tension between the fire department and the heads ... a lot."
Noethlich went on to describe the significant costs of continuing the 23 slated firefighters defined contribution plans. In 2012, the total cost of funding the city's firefighters' pension plan was $935,591. The pension plan is split between the city, Florida Retirement System and the firefighters' contributions. The city paid $31,577.89 per firefighter to this plan in 2012. The fire department makes up 48 percent of the cost of the city's entire pension plan for public employees.
According to a projection study by an accounting firm hired by the city, the expected amount that could be paid in the coming years if the current plan stays in place could begin at more than $1 million.
"We would have to pay that; the tax payers would have to pay that. There's nothing we could do about it," Noethlich explained.
"It's a substantial number and it fluctuates," Noethlich said. "In a plan like this, the city accepts all the risks, therefore the taxpayers assume all the risks. They don't have anything to lose. I can't say that this is the reason that so many cities are going into bankruptcy, but I can bet you this a part of the reason."
The current plan allows retired firefighters to receive a set amount of income until their death. The average of the highest paid five years of service is the amount the firefighter would be paid each year on top of what they already have "stashed away" as well as Social Security benefits.
"So you can see why they are trying to hold on to it," Noethlich explained.
If the magistrate meeting is a success for the city and the new plan 401a, or defined contribution plan, does come into play, the vested members of the fire department (those who have 10 or more years of experience) will be able to retain their defined benefit plan. The city would pay out those vested members pension through death. All new hires or non-vested members would automatically go to the new 401a plan. There are nine vested firefighters employed by the Sebring Fire Department.
Details for the 401a plan will continue to be hammered out between city staff and the special magistrate. So far, the basics of the new proposed plan will allow firefighters to gain 3 percent of their three highest paying years assuming they work a traditional 30-year career until the age of retirement.
The meeting is of great significance to the city, its employees and its taxpayers. Other issues including disciplines, grievances, investigations and health insurance will also be presented during Monday's meeting.
The special magistrate meeting will be held at 9 a.m. Monday at city hall.
aqQTrrZgUP (by: Way to go on this essay, hleepd a ton. - 2/7/2013)
Way to go on this essay, hleepd a ton.
Reality check for everyone (by: Justa Dude - 1/30/2013)
Aren't the majority of firefighters not just in this county but across the country volunteers?
Sitting Around (by: Eyes Wide Open - 1/30/2013)
The Sebring Fire Department ran over 2600 emergencies last year. Is that sitting around? They spend twice that amount of time training and preparing for those emergencies. At least we know why your username is blindman.
Burden to tax payers (by: Public Safety is not Cheap - 1/29/2013)
Leisurely life style? Really? Be grateful firefighters are willing to run into burning buildings regardless of the time of day, regardless of who owns the house, regardless of whether one supports pensions or not.
Pension Funds (by: Blindman - 1/29/2013)
Retirement programs based on pension fund revenues of 7.5% are in the past. Funds revenues now average about 1.5%. Fund assets and revenues are decreasing at little fault to administrators, its the economy. Without restructure, over time, the programs will either fail or the general public will be forced to pay even higher taxes than they do now to make up the difference. The burden of the economy should be shared by "all" people, not just the rich, the poor, or privately employed middle class, but "all" people, that includes federal, state, and local government employees. The will get their money, just not as much as they want, but they will survive! Welcome to the new "Socialist America". You wanted it, now you got it.
Pension (by: David - 1/28/2013)
As a former pension advisor I must respond. It is not the firefighters nor the City that the tax payer should be concerned about with the pension. If the City would look at the lawyers and the administrators that manage the pension fund and look to correct that rape of these funds, it would be much more in line with acceptable costs. Don't punish the working firefighter, find a more cost effective method of managing the fund than the cost of the middle-men that are geting rich off the labor of others. Think, lead, and make a difference. This is a knee-jerk solution to something that can be handled efficiently through research and service providers.
Burden to taxpayers (by: Blindman - 1/27/2013)
Rich & poor must bear the burden of taxes. Firefighters enjoy one of the most leasurely lifestyles of all government employees, hanging out for a day, then off duty for 2 days and so on, rarely do they actually fight fire unless it comes down to their pay. So many businesses, employees, children & whole families have suffered due to hard times while firefighters and their unions continue to place unreasonable demands upon the cities and it's citizens they are supposed to protect. Be grateful you have your jobs.
Two sides (by: Ff - 1/27/2013)
There is always two sides to a story.
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