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Holmes Beach stalls on police pension plan

By Diana Bogan, Islander Reporter

Since January, Holmes Beach city commissioners have postponed the second reading of a police pension fund amendment and, despite receiving requested legal advice in time for their March 22 meeting, they again deferred on the matter, this time until May 24.

Commission Chairperson Sandy Haas-Martens suggested the continuance based on the fact that Gov. Rick Scott has unveiled a plan to reform the state’s employee pension system.

“The senate is reviewing 19 pages of amendments and the legislative session isn’t over until May,” she said. “We should see what the governor signs to make sure we aren’t spinning our wheels and get our plan right.”

Adjustments to the city’s ordinance have been ongoing to comply with changes made to the Internal Revenue Service code and regulations, as well as changes to state law.

The amended ordinance also includes two new benefit options for retirees: the deferred retirement option plan and the partial lump option plan.

If a police department employee elects to enter the DROP, he or she represents a cost savings by ending the city’s retirement contribution. However, the employee may continue to work and draw a salary for up to five years after entering the DROP.

The commission initially postponed discussion in order to seek legal advice from Tallahassee attorney James Linn of Lewis, Longman and Walker, regarding the calculation of unused sick time for police department staff entering the DROP.

As the ordinance reads now, it appears officers would be compensated for unused time upon entering DROP, while also retaining the ability to accrue sick days for use during the DROP period.

The question may be a moot point depending on what action the legislature takes. Scott has proposed ending DROP effective on or after July 1, 2011.

Holmes Beach Police Lt. Dale Stephenson objected to further delay. “The pension board has given you all the information we can for you to make a decision. People have come from home or stayed over from work to listen to a dialogue, and you haven’t even talked about Mr. Linn’s response, that’s the bad part of this,” he said.

“We can have special meetings if you want, but I hate to pass something and have the Legislature take it away,” said Haas-Martens. “We want to get it right for all of you.”

Dan Hardy, a member of the Holmes Beach police pension board, also expressed his disappointment that the commission didn’t make progress on the proposals.

“We’ve got the best department on the Island, one that is well respected in the community,” said Hardy. “We’ve proposed a cost-saving measure — several people ran on that — we have a fully funded pension plan while most are not.”

Hardy noted that all but one item, the, in the proposed amendment DROP housekeeping efforts to comply with changes already made to codes and regulations.

“We hoped you would at least have passed all but the one item that might change,” said Hardy. “Ninety-five percent of these changes are corrections.”

Commissioner Al Robinson questioned the urgency of passing the ordinance rather than waiting until May or June.

“The ball has been rolling a long time on this,” Hardy responded. “We all know changes from Tallahassee come and go like the wind. There will be more changes to make after you approve this.

“We have been trying to get a DROP plan approved for five years,” said Hardy. “We’re not getting anywhere with it. We’re not getting any discussion. It’s a can that keeps getting kicked down the road. Other city employees have DROP, and we’re just trying to level the playing field.

“DROP does save money and it sends a message of support,” he said. “I don’t think the homework on this was done. I don’t think anyone cracked open a page.”

Robinson asked several times for an explanation of how a DROP program benefits the retiring employee.

“I hear loud and clear why it’s good for the city,” said Robinson. “What I don’t understand is why the police are pushing for it? When you’re so eager to give something to me, what’s in it for the policeman? I question if it is a way to spike the pension somehow. After 30 years, I don’t believe anyone wants to work for nothing.”

Stephenson responded that officers have no feasible way to spike the pension with pay for hundreds of hours of overtime. Holmes Beach officers are not offered overtime hours.

Stephenson also explained the benefit for an officer to enter a DROP. “We pay 6 percent of our salary into the pension plan. When I go into DROP, that stops and I get $350, let’s say, more in my salary. I still have a health plan and I can focus my time on getting my ducks in a row and leave the city on good terms.”

“Dale, thank you so much for explaining it,” said Robinson. “I finally got the answer — it doesn’t cost us anything and it puts more of your salary in your pocket — I got an education here. It makes sense.”

After more discussion, the commission passed a motion to continue the second reading to its regular meeting at 7 p.m. Tuesday, May 24.

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