Guest Column by Bill Brockman
As many readers are probably aware, The Fulton County Taxpayers Foundation (FCTF) has filed a lawsuit claiming that pension improvements made by the city of Atlanta in 2001 and 2005 were “illegal.” They seek an injunction to stop the city from funding those improvements and return to the pre-2001 pension plans.
The pre-2001 pension multiple was 2 percent per year of service without cap. The 2001 improvement raised the multiple to 3 percent retroactively and prospectively for police officers with a cap of 80 percent and prospectively for firefighters.
The 2005 improvements made the 3 percent multiplier retroactive for firefighters with an 80 percent cap and made the multiplier 2.5 percent for General Fund employees with an 80 percent cap. It also added a 30-year penalty-free retirement. For firefighters and police officers the retiree must be either 55 years old or have 30 years service to avoid stiff penalties.
As an example of how the lawsuit would affect a retired firefighter, I offer myself. I retired at age 55 in November 2006 with 29 years of service and my pension was calculated at 80 percent of my average yearly salary over the last three years of my career. I had reached the 80 percent cap after 26.7 years and, since the city had long since stopped awarding pay raises, my pension would never increase with additional service.
As a battalion chief who was near the top end of my pay scale, I made about $77,000 my last full year, which is about 35 percent less than my peers in comparable cities. I paid 7 percent of my salary into the pension fund for my entire career. That has since been raised to 8 percent for married employees.
A battalion chief in the city of Atlanta Fire Rescue Department is responsible for an area encompassing one-fifth of the city, six fire stations, and approximately 35 firefighters operating 10 pieces of fire apparatus.
I worked 53-hour weeks for my entire career, which is not considered overtime for firefighters. My hourly pay was thus adjusted downward from that of city employees on my same pay scale working 40 hour weeks. I spent many nights, holidays, and weekends away from my family and routinely risked my life and health.
Now, over three years later, I find that the irrevocable decision I made to retire was based on promises that the FCTF seeks to break. Should their lawsuit succeed, my pension would be reduced by as much as one-third. I may be required to pay back the years of “illegal” payments that I have received since retirement, which would be devastating.
I would like to point out here that no city employee has Social Security benefits from city of Atlanta employment, nor do those of us hired before 1986 have Medicare benefits from city of Atlanta employment. Furthermore, the little Social Security that I have earned through my service in the Georgia National Guard will be dramatically reduced because I have a defined benefit pension. Basically, my city of Atlanta Fire pension is nine/tenths of what my family has for the rest of our lives.
To the best of my knowledge, neither the taxpayers foundation, nor any other group, raised any concerns or objections to either 2001 or 2005 pension improvements at the time. In fact, John Sherman, president of the group, wrote an article entitled, “City of Atlanta’s police officers deserve better” in the June 2000 issue of the Atlanta Business Chronicle in which he called for pension improvements for Atlanta police officers, specifically mentioning the very 3 percent multiplier he now sues to rescind. So he was for it before he was against it, to quote a certain presidential candidate.
I would like to make a couple of final points here. First, the city of Atlanta has almost completely stopped awarding any pay increases. Secondly, the city wanted my peers and me to retire so that we could be replaced with lower paid employees, if replaced at all.
The Fire Department that I joined in 1977 was the largest and highest-paid in the state. Now, the department is smaller while providing increased service to a larger city and pays less than the large suburban departments. Our young firefighters don’t get raises or the annual increments they were told were part of their pay schedule. Many of the department’s best members have left for the “new” cities of north Fulton at vastly higher pay. We thought we had a bargain to exchange lower pay for a good pension. Now, we may find ourselves with neither good pay nor a good pension thanks to self-appointed groups like the taxpayers foundation.
If you are a member of the taxpayers foundation, please urge the leadership of your group to withdraw this punitive lawsuit against Atlanta’s firefighters.