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Law officers to meet with McDonnell on pension issue



April 5, 2010

By Michael Martz | Richmond Times-Dispatch

Police officers, sheriff's deputies and other local law-enforcement officers are asking Gov. Bob McDonnell to protect their pay by preventing localities from shifting responsibility for part of their pension contributions.

Law-enforcement organizations will meet with the governor Tuesday to urge the veto of a proposed state budget provision that would give local governments the option of requiring employees to pay a 5 percent share of their annual retirement contributions.

Most local governments and all school systems have been paying the employee share as a benefit that compensated workers in lieu of higher salaries, but that could change under the two-year budget now on McDonnell's desk.

''Simply put, it would amount to a 5 percent pay cut," said Dana G. Schrad, executive director of the Virginia Association of Chiefs of Police.

The association will join representatives of sheriff's departments and other law-enforcement officers at a meeting with McDonnell on the issue, which already has been raised with alarm by the Virginia Education Association because of its potential effect on teachers and other local school employees.

On the other side, however, local government organizations are urging the governor to leave the provision alone so that localities have the option of shifting a portion of the retirement costs to employees instead of more drastic budget-cutting measures. "It is an option that local officials will have to weigh against other options, including layoffs, furloughs, salary reductions, tax increases and service reductions," said the leaders of the Virginia Municipal League and Virginia Association of Counties in a letter to McDonnell on Wednesday.

But advocates for local employees say that argument doesn't fly because the General Assembly protected current state employees from having to pay a portion of their retirement contributions, as then-Gov. Timothy M. Kaine had proposed in the budget he presented before leaving office.

''They're making state employees exempt, which is great, because I think they should be," said Kevin Carroll, legislative chairman for the Virginia Fraternal Order of Police. "Yet they're leaving it to localities to balance their budgets on the backs of employees."

The battle over retirement contributions is complicated further by a bill, also on McDonnell's desk, that would require state and local employees hired after June 30 to pay their share of retirement costs, amounting to 5 percent of payroll. Under that legislation, localities would have the option of paying all or part of the employee share in addition to the employer cost that is set by the Virginia Retirement System.

However, the proposed law, as written, would allow that option for localities only if they pay the full share for current employees.

Currently, almost all of the localities that provide hazardous-duty retirement benefits to local law-enforcement officers also pay the employee share of the cost.

The pending legislation also would change retirement provisions for new employees. Local law-enforcement officers covered by enhanced hazardous-duty benefits, state police and other state law officers -- correctional guards, game wardens, marine patrol officers, security at public colleges, and Alcoholic Beverage Control agents -- would see changes in cost-of-living retirement calculations and compensation calculations.

The proposed law does not change the minimum eligibility requirements for full retirement benefits, as it does for other state and local employees.

Currently, law-enforcement officers can retire at age 50 with 25 years of service or age 60 with at least five years of service. The current threshold is higher for other public employees, who must have 30 years of service to retire at age 50 or be 65 to retire with as little as five years of service. Under the proposed law, their age and years of service must total at least 90 for full retirement benefits.

''We are basically losing our bargaining chip for good, quality law enforcement," Schrad said.

But the most immediate concern is the potential cost to current employees of the budget option for localities to shift the retirement expense.

John W. Jones, executive director of the Virginia Sheriffs' Association, said many deputies make about $30,000 a year. "They're not making a lot of money, and this is a big hit," Jones said. "These guys, we shouldn't be changing the rules on them."