Benefits should not be an unalterable budget item

When faced with burgeoning costs and insufficient revenue, employers are sometimes forced to make the unpopular decision to reduce employee benefits – unless, of course, that employer is the State of Florida.

As Florida counties struggle to make ends meet, the costs of state employee pension plans provide an ever-growing drain on government finances. According to an article in Sunday’s St. Petersburg Times, the cost of St. Petersburg’s police pension system has risen 166 percent since 2001, with an $8 million increase in 2007 alone. Other cities face similar rising expenses.

This is not to say that state employees – particularly police and fire department personnel – do not warrant substantial pay and pensions, but the state plan is currently incredibly generous. Those classified as special risk employees – police, firefighters, medical technicians, forensics specialists, prison guards, dentists and nurses – who retire after 30 years receive a yearly pension equivalent to 90 percent of their average annual salary of their five highest-paid years. This pension benefit is entirely state-provided – employees make no contributions.

Reducing this benefit, however – despite the financial need – is a political minefield. Carol Westmoreland, associate director of membership development for the Florida League of Cities, said, “There’s too much political baggage if you were to even suggest cuts. You’d be wielding your sword at the windmill.”

Supporters of the benefits claim that special risk employees deserve them because of the risky nature of their jobs and that the benefits serve to offset low wages.

It is inarguable that those who put themselves in harm’s way for the greater good of the public deserve to be well compensated for their efforts, but there are a couple of points to be considered here. First, U.S. military members – arguably those who face the greatest risks for the good of their country – receive only 75 percent of their salary if they retire after 30 years of service. Second, wages for state employees have been substantially increased in recent years. The Times story provides the example of Hillsborough County, where yearly pay raises for state employees averaged 7 percent between 2000 and 2005. Comparatively, the same period saw an average yearly raise of approximately 4 percent in military wages.

Lowering benefits, much like raising taxes, is an unpopular act for a governing body to take. In this case, however, the state needs to consider that responsible management of resources must sometimes come before heedlessly bowing to public opinion.