County wants to reduce rising pension costs

SARASOTA COUNTY -- The county wants to cut the pensions of 69 firefighters and have the city of Sarasota pay as much as $500,000 annually to offset rising pension costs.

The county and the firefighters union reached a tentative agreement last week that calls for the pension cuts but also raises salaries as much as 17 percent over 21/2 years for all 372 union members.

Firefighter-emergency medical technicians, who make up about half of the department, make as much as $43,587 a year, union officials said.
Without help from the union and the city, county officials say they face cutting the county's $46 million fire and emergency services budget.

Residents also could eventually pay higher taxes to cover the services.

The pension cut would amount to about $3,000 for a retired firefighter, who now collects an annual pension of about $33,000.

The proposed cuts and request to the city come as Sarasota County is grappling with rising pension costs for firefighters it inherited when the county and city merged fire departments in 1996.
The county has spent months trying to convince the union and the city to absorb some of the skyrocketing pension costs of the former city firefighters, who are the county's financial responsibility under the terms of the 1996 merger.

Pension costs averaged about $500,000 annually in the initial years following the merger, but were $1.5 million last year and are estimated at $3.7 million for this year.

Costs are rising because of the prolonged Wall Street downturn and because the county approved pension enhancements in 1998 to entice some former city firefighters to retire.
The pension fund was worth $90 million in September 2000, but this past September the value had shrunk to $69 million.

Union members and county commissioners need to approve the agreement, which would take effect April 1.

County Administrator Jim Ley said the deal is also contingent upon the city agreeing to pay as much as $500,000 annually in pension costs.

The city also is being asked to reduce pensions of its former firefighters who retired after the 1996 merger.
The county would pay as much as $1.7 million annually in pension costs under its proposed cost-sharing arrangement.

City Manager Mike McNees said last week that the city was still evaluating the county's proposal.

"We are working here to evaluate what our options are," he said. "And we will continue to do that."
But he may need to give the county an answer soon.
Today is the deadline for the county to give a required one-year notice to the city of its intent to break up the merged fire department.

Ley said he is optimistic the two governments will reach an agreement that keeps the department intact. Even if the county gives notice, that does not stop the two governments from working out a new agreement over the next 12 months.

The county wants the city to roll pension benefits back to what they were before the 1996 merger.
Ley said the former city firefighters would then have pensions on par with county firefighters in the Florida Retirement System. The county would also reap huge savings.

But retired former city firefighters say they will oppose any pension changes.

Dave Stershic, a retired county battalion chief, said retirees will challenge any proposed reductions in court.

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