Gov. Herbert signs bill restoring police, firefighter pensions

Apr 1, 2019, 5:56 PM | Updated: 6:20 pm
#PayOurPolice police pensions restored sb 129...
File photo: Laura Seitz / Deseret News

SALT LAKE CITY — Gov. Gary Herbert has signed a bill, championed by KSL Newsradio’s Dave & Dujanovic, restoring pensions for police and firefighters that had been drastically cut in previous state budget years.

More than 7,500 people signed a pledge through Dave & Dujanovic’s talk show asking legislators to make the change.

In 2011, the retirement plan that covers first responders in the state of Utah was drastically reduced, from 50 percent of a retired officer’s pay after 20 years of service to 37 percent, with 25 years of service.

The restored pension covered in Senate Bill 129 has a delayed start date of 2020, to give local communities time to figure out how to fund the increase.

Pensions have a ripple effect

In the eight years since the cuts to public safety pension took effect, police departments around the state say they have had a much harder time recruiting new officers.

In Salt Lake City, the Daily Universe reported applications from new officers dropped by more than 50 percent. Police chiefs around the state reported similar recruitment drops.

In 2011, Utah’s police officers saw their retirement plan drastically changed.

Public Safety Retirement Program pensions

Photo: Utah Public Safety / Twitter

Before, any officer who served 20 years was entitled to retire and receive 50 percent of their salary for life. It was a popular program among police, who say that it helped them lure capable staff; the nation, however, was in a recession, and in a bid to cut costs wherever possible, the state slashed the program, now requiring officers to work 25 years to retire with just 37 percent of their wage.

A campaign for change

Even before the 2019 legislative session began, talk show hosts Dave Noriega and Debbie Dujanovic took a personal interest in helping restore pensions for police and turning around that recruitment trend.

Taylorsville Police Chief Tracy Wyant told Dave & Dujanovic his story. When he first became an officer in 1997, hundreds of people were fighting for just a handful of positions. The competition was tough, he said, and only the best were selected.

That has changed, Wyant said. The last time his department needed to recruit new officers, they had just 62 applications for around 30 to 40 vacant positions.

“Since the legislation that was passed in 2010 and enacted in 2011, we have seen a steady decline in the number of applications received,” he told Dave & Dujanovic.

Wyant believes there are other factors at play – a booming economy, negative perception in the public about police, and more. However, he believes a large part of the recruitment problem is the retirement system.

“Every neighboring state to Utah … has a superior public retirement plan that we have in Utah,” he says. “It’s something we need to remedy.”

Legislating change: #PayOurPolice

Senate Bill 129, sponsored by Sen. Wayne Harper, R-Taylorsville, went through a few changes before it landed on Gov. Herbert’s desk on March 21. But the lawmakers who backed it told Dave & Dujanovic they were convinced it was a needed change.

police pensions

Since the Public Safety retirement program was scaled back in 2011, Utah has offered its police lower pension than any neighboring state. (Photo: Laura Seitz / Deseret News)

Rep. Paul Ray, R-Clinton, described restoring first responder pensions as “vitally important, not just for law enforcement, but for the communities so that we can have the officers to actually do the job for us.”

Ray believed the promise of that pension was a major draw to prospective officers who might want to protect and serve, but were concerned about the low pay and the daily dangers.

“[Recruiters] would say: ‘Well, look, the salary’s not great, but look at the benefits,’” Ray told Dave & Dujanovic. “Look at what you’re going to get in the end.’”

Without that incentive, he says, there’s little reason for any officer to join up, let alone to stay on for the full 25 years needed to qualify for the current retirement program, especially given the amount of negative press police have received over the last few years.

“We’re asking people to come in for terrible pay, terrible retirement, and to basically be hounded constantly while they’re trying to do their job,” Ray says.

Still work to do

The compromise version of S.B. 129 that was sent to the governor doesn’t fully restore pensions; officers will still need to work 25 years to qualify for retirement. But Ray said it gets the ball rolling for future changes.

“There’s some more things that we have to do to help them out along the way,” Ray says. “This is the first step.”

For their part, Dave & Dujanovic were thrilled to hear the governor had signed S.B. 129 into law.

“Police officers save us during our worst moments,” the talk show hosts said Monday. “The least we can do is make sure they can retire with dignity.”

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Gov. Herbert signs bill restoring police, firefighter pensions