Mayor Richard Berry fears Albuquerque could lose some 200 officers – more than one-fifth of its police force – to retirement over the next two years unless new financial incentives make it worthwhile for them to stay.
Even then, the city could lose at least 100 officers, he said.
The potential exodus is rooted in changes to the retirement system for New Mexico’s government employees. Less-generous benefits will kick in for people who retire next year.
Berry is now seeking help from the City Council and state Legislature.
“The fact is, we can’t afford to lose 200 officers because of the (retirement) changes,” Berry told the Journal in an interview. “We’re losing good officers at a very young age.”
Officers generally can retire with significant benefits after 20 years of service. An officer at 20 years typically makes about $55,000 a year, not including speciality pay or overtime, officials say.
At the city level, Berry has asked councilors to authorize more than $900,000 in funding through this summer to offer pay hikes for officers willing to postpone retirement for a year. Officers would receive an extra $6,000 to $12,000 each year, depending on their tenure.
As for the Legislature, the mayor said he plans again to ask for approval of some kind of return-to-work legislation for retired police officers – a practice that was prohibited for public employees several years ago amid concerns about double dipping. Government workers had been retiring, then returning to work in the same job so they could draw a pension and salary at the same time.
Stephanie Lopez, president of the Albuquerque Police Officers’ Association, said she supports the city incentives but doesn’t believe they go far enough.
For one thing, she said, the proposal needs to be permanent, not just authorized through the summer, or “the city’s going to be suffering a huge, huge deficit in its police force.”
Lopez said she has other concerns about the proposal, too, but that it’s a “good effort.” She said she’s been pushing for quite some time for an incentive package for officers approaching retirement, including incentives for officers who are also military veterans.
Retirements are expected to pick up at the end of this year and next, Berry said, because of phased-in changes to retirement benefits for public employees, starting next summer. Workers who are eligible now will lose some cost-of-living adjustments to their pensions if they don’t retire before July 1.
The city expects many employees to retire at the end of December this year to coincide with the calendar year.
The state made the changes to shore up the financial health of New Mexico’s retirement fund.
Berry, a former state representative, said he understands the need to keep the fund solvent.
But he said he and other city leaders in New Mexico hope the Legislature will create new rules for frontline police officers or make other changes that make it worthwhile for them to stay. The goal, he said, is to keep experienced officers on the streets.
Still, Berry said he can’t wait for state action. He is seeking City Council approval for new incentives expected to cost more than $900,000 for the rest of the fiscal year, which ends in June. It would cost about $1.5 million a year after that to keep the incentive program going.
Councilors Trudy Jones and Diane Gibson introduced legislation this week that would provide the money for this year. The proposal is scheduled for consideration next month.
It’s important, Jones said, for new cadets coming onto the force to train alongside street-savvy officers with years of experience.
“We feel it’s not good for the city to lose our best officers, our experienced officers, when they’re still in their prime,” Jones said.
Gibson said that retaining officers make sense both financially and from a law-enforcement perspective.
“We have an investment in these officers who’ve been on the job for several years,” she said. “They have the experience and a lot of street knowledge.”
Under the program, officers who have 18 years of service would receive $6,000 to postpone retirement for a year, and more-experienced officers would get $12,000.
The city could lose 200 officers to retirement over the next two years if there are no new incentives, Berry said. That’s for a police force of 891 officers right now, he said. Another 33 cadets are expected to graduate in December.
The city budget authorizes 1,000 officers, but the city has had trouble keeping that many. At one point, in June 2010, when the budget was larger, APD had 1,099 officers.
The recruitment and retention of officers emerged as a major campaign issue during Berry’s re-election last year, and it’s received still more attention in the wake of a U.S. Department of Justice investigation that found APD has a pattern of violating people’s rights through the use of force.
Berry estimates that the city’s own financial incentives could keep 100 to 130 of the 200 officers from retiring.
“This is stop-gap measure we’re putting in place,” Berry said.