Lawmakers, not public servants, have broken retirement system
2011-04-02 - 08:10:38 - Current News
Arizona's Public Safety Personnel Retirement System for police officers and firefighters is broken. The people it was designed to serve and who've paid into it religiously at the contribution rate established by the legislature for the last 40 years didn't break it. The widows and orphans of fallen public safety officers who receive survivor benefits didn't break it. And those who were seriously injured in the line of duty and left disabled to live a life of pain, financial uncertainty and often a shorter lifespan didn't break it. It was the Arizona Senate and House of Representatives that broke the system that has served first responders so well until the legislature started tinkering with it. It's the legislature that in recent years changed the laws the system operates by and had fiduciary oversight of the pension fund worth billions of taxpayer and employee dollars. Arizona's 40-year-old public safety pension system was once hailed as one of America's best. Ten years ago it was funded at 127 percent of the needed cash for pensions. Now it's below 66 percent. Some blame the perks handed the legislature to garner political favor with employee associations for the sinking value of the pension fund. Questions are being asked about the investment strategies of the former pension system manager who the legislature gave the highest pension of any state employee, now reportedly at $216,000 a year plus 4 percent annual cost-of-living raises. One public safety employee association audited the fund and is questioning how the pension fund came up short $1.6 billion. That's a good question for the legislature that's supposed to review an annual audit of the system conducted by the state auditor general. All roads for failure lead back to the state capital. Now in political haste and growing public pressure to reform state government, Arizona Speaker of the House Kirk Adams, R-Mesa, has come up with a plan to eviscerate the system and cut benefits to widows, orphans, the disabled, senior citizens and police officers and firefighters who did the job they were asked to do. Following Adams' well-publicized attack, State Sen, Steve Yarbrough, R-Chandler, jumped on the slash and burn bandwagon. Both also want to significantly increase costs to employees. While some politicians have embraced the Goldwater Institute's attitude that police officers and firefighters are robbing the public when they look at double-dippers like Maricopa County Sheriff's Office Chief Deputy David Hendershott and Phoenix Police Chief Jack Harris, and Tempe's triple-dipper police chief Tom Ryff getting multiple pension benefits, hundred thousand-dollar payouts from the Deferred Retirement Option Plan (DROP), state retirement system benefits and taxpayer-subsidized 401(k)s, many working cops and firefighters still live from paycheck to paycheck. Many public safety retirees didn't pay into Social Security and aren't eligible for retirement benefits and Medicare. All they have is their single pension. Health insurance from the legislature's vendor can cost retirees and widows $2,000 a month. Gov. Jan Brewer needs to take control of the issue and establish a panel of independent experts and figure out a way to fix the system that is vital to Arizona's safety, sustainability and future without demonizing and penalizing the police officers and firefighters who have kept their end of the bargain. The system is broken and the legislature broke it. It took them well over a decade to break it, and it will take more than one legislative session to fix it. ? Retired Mesa master police officer Bill Richardson lives in the East Valley and can be reached at