A scaled-back city pension bill sent to Scottby John Kennedy | May 4th, 2011
The House joined the Florida Senate in approving a measure Wednesday making mostly modest changes to city pension plans — backing away from more sweeping approaches proposed earlier to stabilize some of the financially troubled funds.
The only major overhaul included in the legislation (CS/SB 1128) limits overtime pay to 300 hours per year for benefit calculations for police, firefighters and other municipal employees. The cap would stop government workers from using what critics say is a common pension-boosting practice.
The legislation was approved 80-35 and sent to Gov. Rick Scott, who is expected to sign it into law. The bill also requires more oversight from the state’s Department of Management Services of the hundreds of local funds, including posting a five-year history of each plan’s financial status.
But it stops far short of what many cities had earlier proposed. The Florida League of Cities had wanted lawmakers to rework a 1999 law that fattened the pensions of police and firefighters that had been spearheaded by former Gov. Jeb Bush.
The lucrative pension provision was the first bill signed into law by the former two-term governor, who had been endorsed by the Florida Police Benevolent Association and Florida Association of Professional Firefighters in the governor’s race the previous fall.
Cities this year had sought authority to use the growth in dollars flowing to them from state taxes on property insurance premiums to go into existing benefits or easing municipal pension liabilities. The 1999 law requires the growth in these premiums go only to additional benefits.
Cities have responded with such pension sweeteners as cost-of-living adjustments, lower retirement age, or an increased “multiplier” used in determining pensions based on years-of-service, all of which have forced them to spend an additional $400 million on pension costs since 1999.
In some communities, pension benefits have climbed so steeply that they command a big share of taxpayers’ dollars.
In West Palm Beach, fire pension costs – if tucked into the city’s overall payroll – would absorb 31 percent of the dollars. Police pensions would take 29 percent, according to a league analysis.
But some cities, particularly in Broward and Miami-Dade counties, are facing double those costs.
Still, lawmakers were wary of stepping into local pension fights and the politics between city commissioners and public employees’ unions. House Democrats, who mostly opposed the measure Wednesday, said even the scaled-back proposal went too far.
“This is a local policy issue,” said Rep. Scott Randolph, D-Orlando. “This body is just being asked by the cities to come in, saying `bail us out from what we’ve done.’”
But Rep. Jimmy Patronis, R-Panama City, said the bill’s tentative steps were still needed.
“Help our cities make sure we have solvent plans for our first responders,” Patronis said.