Minnesota police and fire forces bracing for early retirements

  • Article by: NICOLE NORFLEET , Star Tribune
  • Updated: December 8, 2013 - 9:02 PM

Change in pension rules could cause an exodus of experienced law enforcement officers.

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Alysha Huber of Oakdale, left, who is interested in a career in law enforcement, listened to St. Paul police investigator Diana Olsem talk about departmental opportunities during a job fair Saturday.

Photo: David Joles, Star Tribune

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Police, sheriffs and other law enforcement departments around Minnesota are seeking to shore up their ranks in preparation for a possible large-scale exodus of older, experienced veterans next spring when pension changes could result in a wave of early retirements.

Out of about 10,500 peace officers in the state, an estimated 10 percent could be eligible to retire early by May 31, 2014, after which pension reductions will increase for those who retire before they turn 55.

By May, there will be about 105 St. Paul officers age 50 or older and eligible for retirement, about 17 percent of the total active officers. In Minneapolis, 166 officers could retire now, out of 814 sworn officers. About 30 percent of sworn deputies working for the Ramsey County Sheriff’s Office could be eligible for retirement.

Some fear that if a large number of those officers leave all at once, it could mean fewer cops on the street — or at least fewer with experience.

For the first time ever, the St. Paul Police Department hosted a job fair last month in search of men and women interested in wearing a badge. When St. Paul police hosted two seminars recently for people in the department who were thinking about retiring early, they completely filled up — raising red flags and fueling Chief Tom Smith’s concerns.

“I’m worried about if we are losing a lot of people … a lot of experience can go out the door,” Smith said.

The catalyst was an omnibus pension bill signed into law this year to strengthen the police and fire plan of the Public Employees Retirement Association of Minnesota (PERA), which has lost funding relative to its beneficiaries since 1999.

More retiring in their 50s

Among several provisions was an increase in early retirement reduction factors that will go from 1.2 percent per year to 5 percent per year for most members in 2019. That means that, after May 31, there will be a higher reduction in pensions for retiring early. The change will be phased in over five years. However, members also have to consider that the longer they work, the more their salary is likely to increase and the more service credits they earn.

PERA’s police and fire plan also includes firefighters and paramedics, who make up about 15 percent of the plan’s estimated 11,000 members.

St. Paul officers typically used to retire in their 60s, but Smith said he is seeing more and more retire in their 50s. It’s costly when people leave, Smith said, because it takes so long to train their replacements.

With a lot of retirement parties possibly happening at the same time next year, Dave Titus, president of the St. Paul Police Federation, said the department would be forced to compete for highly qualified officers from outside. He said that could be a problem for St. Paul, which ranks 25th out of 27 metro-area departments in pay for patrol officers with four years’ experience. The police union has been in a disagreement with the city over pay and has filed for arbitration.

“There’s no way we will fill the 100 seats with the best of the best,” Titus said.

Not everyone thinks the situation is dire. Paul Monteen, standards coordinator for the Minnesota Board of Peace Officer Standards and Training (POST), said there are plenty of potential candidates to cover those who leave. There are around 2,500 eligible officers who have passed a POST exam and could be hired, he said.

“I’m not too worried about it,” Monteen said.

Across the river, the Minneapolis Police Department is keeping tabs on its potential retirement numbers.

“Our ability to stay current with the eligibility numbers, while ensuring we have adequate succession planning and a hiring strategy from a budgetary and diversity recruitment standpoint, is critical,” Chief Janeé Harteau said in a statement.

Hiring has been on hold

Ramsey County Sheriff Matt Bostrom said he was optimistic that there will be enough talented candidates to hire if necessary. Still, he is preparing for a possible wave of retirements by developing two lists of potential hires — one for detention officers who could be promoted, another for outside candidates. It’s the first time the department has compiled both lists at the same time, he said.

“A lot of agencies haven’t been hiring a lot because of the economy … therefore there are a lot of candidates out there who are waiting for that opportunity,” Bostrom said.

Jeff McCormick, chief of the Cannon Falls Police Department and president of the Minnesota Chiefs of Police Association, said the predicted retirements aren’t different from what departments have already gone through. Back in the 1970s, there was a large influx of new law enforcement officers coming in, so it’s only natural that they would start to retire, McCormick said.

Nevertheless, departments are getting ready just in case, he said.

“In our line of work … we certainly look for the best outcome but we will certainly prepare for the worst scenario,” he said.

 

Nicole Norfleet • 612-673-4495

Twitter: @stribnorfleet

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