Arbitrator slams "disingenuous" city retirement measure

PORTLAND TRIBUNE FILE PHOTO - A new arbitrator's ruling could increase staffing problems for Portland police.The city is wrestling with how to pay for a recent arbitrator’s ruling that could make an existing shortage of police officers worse.

About 10 percent of the city’s 903 sworn officers are eligible to retire this year. And the abitrator’s ruling in favor of the union representing Portland police will make leaving the department more attractive, essentially giving a nearly 4 percent retirement bump to those who retire by October.

The arbitrator essentially overturned the heart of a ballot measure proposed by the Portland City Council and approved by voters in 2012, calling it “disingenuous.”

The ruling will cost the city about $40 million over 25 years and potentially add to a staffing shortage that officers say increasingly makes it hard to do their jobs. The bureau already is down about 55 officers, according to a Portland Police Bureau spokesman.

Significantly, the arbitrator's ruling also suggests that future city reforms of the police and fire retirement fund can’t be as ambitious, lest they make the same mistake the city did in 2012.

Not only that, but the ballot measure approved now prohibits the independent city retirement fund for police and firefighters from paying the tab. And as a result, the city may have to turn to its own finances, not the Fire & Police Disability & Retirement fund, to pick up the increased costs in a tight budget year.

"The City, however, cannot abdicate its management responsibilities and obligations to the voting public,” wrote the arbitrator, Sylvia Skratek. “A collective bargaining agreement is between the City and one of its respective unions. While there are certainly political forces that may attempt to influence negotiations between the parties it is ultimately the agreement struck by the parties that is binding.”

The Portland Police Association and its lawyer, Anil Karia, could not be reached for comment. Chief Larry O’Dea declined to comment on the arbitrator’s ruling, as did the Portland City Attorney’s Office.

The ruling essentially restores an anomaly that voters tried to eliminate in 2012, that choosing to retire at certain periods allows the officer’s final base pay for retirement purposes to be based on 27 pay periods, not the usual 26.

Those windows of increased retirement pay hit twice in 2012, as well as once in 2013 and 2015. It will hit twice in 2016 and once in 2017, then won’t come again until February 2019, according to the arbitrator.

For just one officer, leaving in April or October 2016 could mean an additional $60,000 over the next 25 years based on the typical cop’s life expectancy, according to the ruling.

In November 2012, Portland voters approved a ballot measure that was billed as modernizing the city’s retirement fund for fire and police, while cutting costs. It passed easily, winning about three-quarters of the vote.

But on March 16, arbitrator Sylvia Skratek blasted the initiative as disingenuous and unlawful. And she accused the city of promoting the measure as a back-door effort to overrule previous arbitrator findings.

“The City is now attempting to hide behind a so-called voters’ mandate to change the determination of Final Pay,” she wrote. “The Arbitrator can find nothing within the information that was put forward by the City to the voting public that clearly delineates how the change would affect long serving police and fire fighters. The emphasis is placed on the $45 million dollar savings and a decrease in taxpayer liabilities. Human nature in today’s volatile political environment leads most voters to support anything that smacks of a tax reduction. To put an issue as important as pension benefits before the voters without a full and honest explanation of the effect of the change is unconscionable.”

The city had argued to the arbitrator that it has the same ability to use legislative approved reforms to change retirement pay as does the Oregon PERS system.

But Skratek disagreed, writing that while the state has certain powers to reform retirement benefits, the city does not. The city’s argument otherwise “is a significant misrepresentation of the statute,” she wrote, adding that the ballot measure amounted to the city “disingenuously attempting to evade its responsibilities and obligations.”

In a recent budget hearing, members of the Portland City Council considered possible ways to boost new officer pay as well as other steps to try and combat staffing problems at the bureau.

Since 2009, the number of crime reports handled by Portland officers has climbed from about 190,000 calls to 250,000 calls in the last fiscal year, according to bureau statistics.

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