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Police, firefighters earn those pensions
Matt Roehr's attack on Portland's Fire and Police Disability and Retirement Fund is another attempt to exploit the current political climate to eliminate decent and hard-earned benefits to those men and women who put their lives on the line for Portlanders 24 hours a day, 365 days a year Ñ a goal the right wing has dedicated itself to in this state since the passage of Measure 5 in 1990.
Most people do not realize that firefighters and police officers in Portland are not covered by the Public Employees Retirement System. In fact, apparently even Mr. Roehr is unaware that firefighters and police officers in Portland are not covered by workers' compensation or Social Security.
For an honest discussion of what alternative retirement and disability systems could replace the current system, one must acknowledge that any change invokes a law that would require taxpayers to bear the cost of entering firefighters and police officers into the expensive workers' compensation and Social Security systems. That expensive fact Ñ a conservative estimate of the cost for just the Social Security portion is $6 million Ñ is not included in Mr. Roehr's argument.
The increased cost of entering the workers' compensation and Social Security systems notwithstanding, Mr. Roehr ignores the fact that all of the solutions currently sought by Salem lawmakers to the PERS problem are contained within the current FPD&R system in Portland. Portland's retirement system is insulated from the economic swings of the economy. Its members receive benefits based on a defined benefits formula, which is exactly what lawmakers are proposing for PERS.
In fact, benefits under the FPD&R were found to be at or below the benefits for firefighters and police officers in comparable cities. The levy that funds the system has existed since being authorized by Portland voters in 1948. The levy has been at 60 percent or less of the maximum allowable assessment since that time, and it costs the average homeowner approximately $243 per year.
In over a half-century, there has never been a time when the general fund of the city was even close to having to pay retirement and disability costs for Portland's firefighters and police officers. The only possibility of that happening is if a plan such as the one Mr. Roehr advocates is adopted.
To create a so-called 'funded' system (not actually cash, but rather cash invested) within the FPD&R system would require the current generation of taxpayers to pay not only for currently retired firefighters and police officers but also to begin setting money aside for those firefighters and police officers who are currently working. In other words, one generation of taxpayers would be required to pay for two generations of firefighters and police officers.
Additionally, if Portland switched, as Mr. Roehr suggests, to a system allowing firefighters or police officers to invest their money in the same way as current PERS employees do, and also added the new costs of workers' compensation and Social Security, the system would most certainly go over the maximum allowed for in the levy and require that the general fund make up the difference.
I think that Portland citizens Ñ and, for that matter, Oregonians Ñ have seen the consequences of political philosophies bent on curtailing funding for services such as schools and social services. This same philosophy in Oregon created a 'kicker' that sends dollars back to taxpayers instead of to a 'rainy day' fund that would shield our state from the fiscal crisis we are currently suffering. Oregon's economic woes are punctuated by a political stalemate in Salem that continually threatens the livability of our beloved state.
Citizens of Portland should be wary of so-called 'fixes' by the political right. Their philosophy has been tried and has failed in our state for well over a decade. Let's not let that same group attack the pensions of our firefighters and police officers.
Randy Leonard is a member of the Portland City Council. He is a former member of the Oregon Legislature and was a lieutenant with the Portland Fire Bureau until his election to the City Council in November 2002.