Management & Labor

Arizona's Firefighter Chief Wants More Volunteers ... to Cut Their Pensions

August 12, 2014

Bryan Jeffries, the chief of Arizona’s firefighters’ association, has been arguing to anyone who will listen that his members — and the state’s police officers, too — should volunteer to cut their own pension benefits.

Mr. Jeffries, a fourth-generation Arizonan who has been a firefighter and a city councilor, says that emergency workers have a special obligation to protect the public not only from physical peril, but also from financial ruin. Cutting pensions for firefighters and police officers would help save their woefully underfunded retirement plan and bail out towns and cities that are struggling to keep up with their mandated contributions, he says.

“It is critical for our state, for the taxpayers and for the next generation that will be here long after we are gone, that we repair this,” said Mr. Jeffries, whose group, the Professional Fire Fighters of Arizona, is not a union but works on political issues relevant to its membership. “I know intellectually that with these ballooning payments, I feel a direct conflict with the oath I took to protect the citizens.”

His unusual proposal has been a touchy subject for many of the people whose pensions would be cut, because defined benefit pension plans are viewed as compensation for doing dangerous work and a lure to recruit new public servants. And despite the growing shortfall in the statewide pension plan that has put stress on cities and towns, which must make up the difference, politicians have been nevertheless wary of attacking these benefits, for fear of alienating two powerful constituencies and to sidestep questions about why they lavished such generous pensions on them in the first place.

“When you see policemen and firemen putting their lives on the line, you want to make sure that when they retire, they receive a reasonable retirement,” said Jeff Dial, a Republican state representative from the Phoenix area who supports the firefighters’ initiative.

But among the 236 employers in Arizona’s $6.1 billion Public Safety Personnel Retirement System, which covers about 31,000 active and retired emergency workers, just 39 have fully funded pension plans. An additional 21 plans are less than 40 percent funded, a rate so low that if they operated in the private sector, they would be at risk of being taken over.

The growing unfunded liabilities have forced cities and towns to pick up the tab. Tucson, for instance, contributes the equivalent of 51 percent of its emergency workers’ wages, up from about 11 percent a decade ago. That means if a firefighter’s salary is $60,000, Tucson must pay about $30,000 more toward his pension. For most police officers and firefighters, pensions make up the bulk of their retirement income, because they do not collect Social Security.

The Arizona pension system has been eroded by ill-fated investments, provisions that have steered money to retirees instead of replenishing the plan, and budget woes that have led cities to cut the size of their fire and police departments, leaving fewer employees to pay for retirees. Municipalities forced to pay higher contributions have had to raise taxes and take other difficult steps.

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