Antioch’s new council to consider re-approving 3% at 50 pension benefit for police, tonight

By James Ott

Citing the need to attract more experienced police officers to the city, Antioch city council will decide whether or not to increase retirement benefits for police officers hired from other cities at a special meeting tonight at 6 p.m. The change could also see retirement package increases for all new city hires.

At last week’s regular city council meeting, new Human Resources Director Michelle Fitzer, City Manager Jim Jakel and Antioch Police Chief Allan Cantando suggested changing the city’s PERS retirement package for new police hires from three percent of pay at age 55 to back to three percent at age 50 formula the city had prior. The new benefits package, if passed would allow new hires from other cities to collect pension five years earlier. Council voted unanimously to move the item forward for a decision.

This comes only months after the city worked with the Antioch Police Officer Association to reduce pension benefits for new hires to the current 3 percent at 55 formula in order to combat a poor economy and some $59 million in underfunded retirement benefits debt.

Police Chief Cantando said that the city is having trouble filling the current 15 vacancies in the police department, something he thinks reverting back to the “3 percent at 50” formula would help remedy.

Cantando said that he has not personally had any potential hires tell him that the city’s current retirement plan would prevent them from taking up a police position with Antioch. But he said that there are far more inexperienced officers applying to Antioch instead of experienced officers from other cities, and so he believes offering a better retirement package could change that.

Cantando and the city say they would prefer to hire mostly veteran officers because they have more experience in a variety of situations and don’t need as much training as recent police academy grads. Though Cantando and several city council members such as Wade Harper and Gary Agopian said they would like a “nice mix” or experienced and new officers.

Included in the staff report was a comparison of retirement benefits for 15 surrounding cities – 8 of those 15 used “3 percent at 55” and only 6 used the “3 percent at 50” that Antioch is currently considering switching to. The city of Clayton uses an even lower “2 percent at 50” formula for its safety employees. It’s interesting to note, however that of the 8 nearby cities that use the “3 percent at 55” formula, every one of those cities recently switched to this formula for new hires in either 2011 or 2012.

At last week’s meeting the city had no available data that would show the financial impact that this increase in benefits would cost the city of Antioch, but as Jakel stated during the presentation last week: Antioch has seen a fiscal crisis over the last five years that has seen staffing levels decline nearly forty percent from 401 positions in 2007 to less than 250 employees in 2012.

Antioch has had to restructure all of its employees pay and pension including eliminating all deferred compensation and medical after retirement.

Jakel said of the recent restructuring: “It was painful but action was needed to ensure the financial integrity of the city. We’re off the bottom but we’ll remain in choppy waters for the coming two years.”

But Jakel said that the council has seen it’s time to act and are acting on this new item.

Indeed the council voted unanimously to move forward on the issue of increasing pension for not only new police hires but it also voted to look at increasing the pension of all new city hires from a “2 percent at 55” formula to the “2.7 percent at age 55” pension plan that similar employees hired before 2007 received. There wasn’t very much discussion as to why this move was made but it is assumed it is to be “fair” to all new hires, not just police officers.

Financial impact figures are supposed to be available, at tonight’s meeting, before a decision is made.

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