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Cities want to rollback pension standard OK’d under Jeb Bush

by John Kennedy | December 12th, 2011

Florida cities said Monday that they are poised to make another attempt at revamping costly pension requirements that emerged under former Republican Gov. Jeb Bush.

The current Republican-led Legislature may be wary of antagonizing police and firefighter unions, a frequent election-year ally. But Florida League of Cities officials said they hope a pocketbook appeal might drive changes when lawmakers reconvene in January.

“Pension reform is by far the issue that has garnered the most attention,” among city leaders, said Scott Dudley, a league lobbyist. “It’s important to preserve and protect pensions into the next generation of police and firefighters.”

A report released last month by the Leroy Collins Institute gave mixed reviews on the health of pension plans in 100 Florida cities. In Palm Beach County, plans in six cities earned failing, or near-failing grades.

Boynton Beach’s police plan and Palm Beach Gardens’ police and fire pensions were among the 15 percent of municipal plans drawing F’s. Plans in Riviera Beach, Boca Raton, Jupiter, Boynton Beach and Lake Worth earned D’s in the Collins Institute analysis of  financial strength.

The League of Cities is promoting legislation (SB 910, HB 365)  that would effectively lift a standard in place since 1999 that has improved city police and fire pensions. The provision requires that growth in dollars flowing to cities from state taxes on property insurance premiums go to additional benefits for police officers and firefighters.

Cities next 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 the league says have forced cities to spend an additional $460 million on pension costs since 1999.

Now, as the economic slump has put added strain on city pension investments, taxpayers are paying more in property taxes to meet the demand of the public safety providers’ extra benefits.

This pro-union law also has the tantalizing history of being the first measure enacted by Bush and Republican legislators in Florida, then the first GOP-controlled government of any state that had been part of the Confederacy.

Bush eagerly signed the measure ­- relishing the symbolism of making good in a hurry on a campaign promise made while getting the endorsement of the Florida Police Benevolent Association and Florida Professional Firefighters Association.

Bush and Republican leaders, however, are rarely thought of as being allied with unions. Indeed, Bush earlier this year co-authored an Op-Ed in the Los Angeles Times, decrying the financial woes of states, putting much of the blame on union contracts.

Bush’s co-writer was Newt Gingrich, now a front-runner for the Republican presidential nomination.

Matt Puckett, lobbyist for the Florida PBA, said collective bargaining negotiations can resolve some of the deeper financial issues clouding local pensions.  But he said that no legislation is needed that would go so far as to remove the insurance premium tax standard in place since 1999.

“The cities just want to have total control of those moneys,” Puckett said.

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