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Study: Return-to-work for cops won’t hurt retirement fund

Members of the 110th APD cadet class salute at the start of graduation ceremonies in May 2014. Mayor Richard Berry is expected to announce support today for legislation that the city hopes would bolster the ranks of the police department. (Jim Thompson/Albuquerque Journal)

Members of the 110th APD cadet class salute at the start of graduation ceremonies in May 2014. Mayor Richard Berry is expected to announce support today for legislation that the city hopes would bolster the ranks of the police department. (Jim Thompson/Albuquerque Journal)

Copyright © 2016 Albuquerque Journal

BERRY

BERRY

An actuary hired by the city of Albuquerque will release a report today that says a pared-down version of return-to-work legislation the city hopes would bolster the depleted ranks of APD wouldn’t hurt the state public employee retirement fund – and in fact might help it.

Mayor Richard Berry and a coalition of mayors, state legislators and Cabinet members are expected to announce support today for the legislation that will be introduced in the coming 30-day session.

The New Mexico Municipal League, Santa Fe Mayor Javier Gonzales and the New Mexico Sheriffs’ Association are among those already supporting the bill.

It will be carried by Rep. Larry Larrañaga, R-Albuquerque, chairman of the powerful House Appropriations and Finance Committee.

A broader version of the legislation met a quick demise last year when a legislative analysis said it would cause a $60 million hit on the state’s public employee retirement fund.

But William “Flick” Fornia, an actuary hired by the city, has done a study and prepared a report concluding that the bill being drafted would have little or no effect on the Public Employees Retirement Association fund.

City Attorney Jessica Hernandez said that the only officers eligible for return-to-work under the legislation are those who had retired as of Jan. 1 and that the total number rehired by any municipality would be capped.

Fornia said rehired officers would pay into the fund but would not accrue additional retirements benefits. The city also would make the required contribution to the retirement fund for each rehire.

“I cannot understand how it can do anything but help” the state’s public employees retirement fund, Fornia said.

Albuquerque is paying Fornia up to $50,000 to do the study and testify in front of the Legislature.

Berry said the legislation is vital to grow the ranks of Albuquerque police, which has dwindled from 1,099 officers in 2010 to around 820 currently, a 25 percent decrease. A staffing study concluded the department needs 1,000 officers.

Although various factors have contributed to APD’s manpower shortage, the sharp increase in the number of officers retiring coincided with a law enacted in 2010 that sharply curtailed the practice known as double dipping in state and local government. That legislation was part of an effort to shore up the solvency of the retirement account.

“I cannot get to 1,000 officers without return-to-work,” Berry said in a meeting with Journal reporters and editors. “If it doesn’t pass this year, we have to put a big pool of millions of dollars together and go out and cannibalize other (police) departments with signing bonuses.”

Return-to-work legislation died in committee during last year’s legislative session. Critics refer to the practice as double dipping because it allows officers to collect their pensions and paychecks at the same time.

Union opposed

Shaun Willoughby, the president of the Albuquerque police union, lobbied against the legislation last year, arguing that return-to-work hurts the morale of police departments if new hires can take sought-after positions and promotions within the department.

But Berry and other city officials said a fresh version of the legislation addresses those concerns.

In Albuquerque, the rehires would be limited to holding the rank and the salary of a patrol officer first class, regardless of the officers’ rank and salary at the time of retirement. Most APD officers are paid hourly. Most make around $28 an hour.

Assistant Chief Robert Huntsman said the rehires would only be assigned to uniformed patrol duties or possibly assignments such as auto-theft detective. In other departments around the state, rehires could hold any position.

Since the legislation Larrañaga will introduce would only apply to officers who retired before 2016, city officials said there would be no ability for officers to try to plan a future retirement to maximize their pension and how much they can make as a rehire.

The bill will also limit returning officers to five years of additional work, and rehires could account for only 10 percent of a law enforcement agency.

In Albuquerque, Huntsman said another 80 officers will become eligible to retire by May. He said he expected between 30 and 50 officers to become rehires if the legislation passes.

Berry said the end of return-to-work in the state five years ago has contributed to the decrease of officers in Albuquerque. A survey of some city police officers who retired last year, however, found some officers also cited a lack of support from City Hall and concerns about the department’s leadership as reasons they were leaving.

APD is operating under court-enforceable reforms after the Department of Justice found police had a pattern of excessive force and a “cultural aggression.”

Some concerns have been raised about rehiring officers involved in use-of-force cases. However, the city would have the flexibility to offer positions only to retirees it wanted to rehire – the jobs would not be guaranteed.

Berry said the legislation wouldn’t bring APD up to its staffing goal but could be a significant help when coupled with aggressive recruiting and bigger cadet classes.

“In today’s environment with 820 or so officers, if 30, 40 or 50 people with 20 years’ experience go back to the front lines, that makes a huge difference,” Berry said. “This is so important to Albuquerque and other communities around the state.”

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