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Our Opinion: Voters should support change to police, fire retirement fund

Portland property taxpayers can save $47 million during the next 25 years if voters agree in the November general election to sensible changes to the city’s pension and disability program for police officers and firefighters.

Back in 2006, the city’s voters approved significant reforms to put a halt to documented abuses of the Portland Fire and Police Disability and Retirement Fund. Now, they are being asked to consider a narrower set of reforms to ensure that police officers and firefighters get the pensions they have earned — but not more than they are due.

The biggest change being proposed by the city’s Measure 26-145 would affect how retirement benefits are calculated. If the measure is approved, this calculation would be based on a police officer’s or firefighter’s actual salary for the year preceding retirement. Members of the retirement program no longer would be allowed to include retroactive wages. Nor would the fact that some years contain 27 pay periods — instead of 26 — be allowed to influence the pension amount.

Another change that strikes us as more than fair is establishing an eligibility period of six months for the disability program.

Under the current system, newly hired police officers or firefighters can claim lifetime benefits for injuries even if they were still in training — and even if their disabilities don’t prevent them from earning a living in other occupations. This measure would put new recruits into the state’s regular workers compensation system for their first six months of employment.

Portland’s City Council referred Measure 26-145 to the voters with the backing of Dan Saltzman, the commissioner assigned to oversee the Fire and Police Disability and Retirement Fund. The police and fire unions have said these type of changes shouldn’t be decided by voters, but instead through collective bargaining.

In our view, however, Portland’s system of funding the disability and retirement fund — through direct taxation of property owners — means that voters have a vital interest in controlling excessive costs while also treating retired or disabled employees with fairness. For that reason, we believe voters should approve Measure 26-145.