Police officers and firefighters, who saw their retirement program gutted in 2011, may soon see their former pension plan come back.
Senator Wayne Harper presented a new bill to the Utah Senate on Tuesday, calling for a revision of our state’s Public Safety retirement plan that would return it to something close to what it was before 2011.
The news has received praise from police chiefs around the state, many of whom say that they saw their recruitment numbers plummet after the retirement plan was changed.
The issue has been a major talking point for KSL Newsradio’s Dave & Dujanovic, who have spent the year actively campaigning to restore police retirement benefits under the banner of #PayOurPolice. Harper’s bill wouldn’t completely achieve that goal; however, they say that the improvements it makes are a great first step.
Utah’s Public Safety retirement program
Harper’s bill would effectively reverse a decision the Utah Legislature made in 2010, when our police and firefighters saw their pensions cut by 33 percent.
Before, police officers and firefighters could retire after 20 years and count on receiving 50 percent of their annual salary for life.
The bill passed in 2010, however, changed that drastically. It requires every officer who joined the force in July 2011 or later to stay on an extra five years before retiring and, even then, only offers them 37 percent of their salary.
Those extra five years, officers say, make a big difference, particularly because of the intense emotional stress involved in working in the line of duty.
“The mental and physical stress of 20 years of carnage is usually more than an individual can handle,” one officer, signing the #PayOurPolice pledge, wrote. “We, as officers see death and get to know the victims and suspects more intimately than any soldier.”
He described personally serving more than 100 child sexual abuse cases, 40 suicides, and talking down four officers from taking their own lives. He recounted holding dying people in his arms, seeing the mutilated body of a child on the job, and having to have his wife and child visit him in the hospital after he’d been wounded in the line of duty, unsure if he was still alive.
For many officers, the option to retire after twenty years was the carrot at the end of stick that kept them on the force. According to Rep. Paul Ray, recruiters would encourage officers by saying: “Look, the salary’s not great, but look at the benefits. Look at what you’re going to get in the end.”
With a third of that pension slashed and an extra five years added, however, police chiefs around the state say that they’ve seen applications from new recruits drop rapidly.
“When I was hired in 1997 by the Salt Lake County Sheriff’s office, I competed against upwards to 700 applicants for literally a handful of Deputy Sheriff positions,” Unified Police Chief Tracy Wyant told Dave & Dujanovic. “During 2018, respective to the Unified Police Department, our average received application numbers were 62 for each recruitment process.”
Currently, there are 600 unfilled positions for police officers around the state. Supporters of Harper’s bill are hopeful that, once the retirement program is restored, they’ll see those positions filled.
Sen. Wayne Harper’s bill
Harper’s bill would not completely restore the Public Safety program to its old levels, but it would bring the pension program closer to what it once was.
Under his bill, police officers would still have to work for 25 years before retiring. However, instead of only getting 37 percent of their salary, officers would generally – with some exceptions* – receive 50 percent of their salaries for life.
That bonus would also be available to the spouses of officers and firefighters who die in the line of duty. Under Harper’s bill, if an officer or firefighter dies after serving 20 years, their surviving spouse would automatically receive their retirement benefits.
That increased return, supporters say, would make Utah more competitive with other nearby states. Every state neighboring Utah, according to NCSL records, offers officers retiring after 25 years of service a pension of at least 50 percent of their average income.
The extra costs, under Harper’s bill, would be funded through a combination of liquor taxes, employer and employee retirement contributions, and a one-time appropriation of $5,300,000 from the state’s general fund.
Wyant believes that the changes are strong first steps towards driving police recruitment back up.
“This is one component of the overall picture,” Wyant says. He admits that there are other factors, such as the economy and the negative perception of police in the media, that affect recruitment. However, he says that retirement program a “huge component,” and, more importantly: “a component that we can control.”
“We are incredibly thankful to Sen. Harper,” Wyant says. “It’s a big issue for these men and women. And, candidly, it should be.”
Dave & Dujanovic call for your support
KSL Newsradio’s Dave & Dujanovic have been asking their listeners to sign their pledge to improve police retirement benefits, and they believe that Sen. Harper’s bill is a big step in the right direction.
“I think this bill restores a lot of those benefits,” says Dave Noriega. “I’m not sure it goes far enough, but if this is what it takes to get the ball rolling, I’m all for it.”
You can sign their pledge here:
Click the link to pledge your support here to restore police pensions in Utah! Police departments across the state say they are having problems recruiting new officers. Improving their retirement benefits would do a lot to help. Pledge your support now: https://t.co/Ef26kxJBK8
— Dave and Dujanovic (@D2KSL) January 23, 2019
If you missed their conversation with Unified Police Chief Tracy Wyant live on the air, you can still hear everything they had to say on the Dave & Dujanovic podcast:
* Under Sen. Harper’s bill, Tier II officers’ pensions will be calculated based on their years served. For each year served after July 2019, they will be able to add 2 percent to their pension. However, for years served between July 2011 and July 2019, officers would only add 1.5 percent to their pension. Sen. Harper has told KSL that this rule has been added to lower the bill’s fiscal impact and to increase support.
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