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Clearwater and its cops come to an agreement on pensions

CLEARWATER — Police officers will pay more into their pensions and city employees will lose some retirement benefits under new contracts that union leaders have approved.

The reforms are the city's latest attempts to cut pension costs, which officials say have more than tripled in the last decade. The new agreements will save the city $5 million in pension spending in the first year, officials said, and up to $400 million over 30 years.

Police officers will pay a tenth of their pay into their pensions, instead of 8 percent. For an officer with a $50,000 salary, that would equal a $1,000 cut in yearly pay.

Officers will also lose their retirement cost-of-living adjustment, given since 2000, and general employees will see their adjustment shrink. New hires will have to work longer to earn less at retirement.

The agreements come as a pleasant surprise to city leaders, who expected negotiations could be, as in the past, tense and prolonged. This summer, Mayor Frank Hibbard unsuccessfully pushed to extend City Council terms so members could stay involved during negotiations.

Of the agreements, Hibbard said, "It's a good thing for them, it's a great thing for us, and it's a great thing for the citizens long-term."

But the reforms also mark another belt-tightening moment for public employees, whose workforce has dwindled under years of budget and job cuts.

The police officers' and supervisors' unions ratified the changes this month. General employees will vote Jan. 5.

Any pension changes will go before the City Council. If approved, they will then head to the voters for a referendum, possibly in November.

Most of the changes will affect only those employees not eligible for retirement by 2013.

The agreements come for only three of the city's four unions, leaving negotiations with the firefighters, historically the most resistant union, still a work in progress.

The new contract for police officers and supervisors will last through September 2015, keeping the city from contracting out for services with the Pinellas County Sheriff's Office.

Jon Walser, president of the local Fraternal Order of Police, said the 2 percent shifts would be "challenging" for the union's more than 200 detectives, corporals, technicians and patrol officers.

"We understand how difficult it is for the citizenry," Walser said. "We work hard. We understand the burdens, and we appreciate what their sufferings are, too."

General employees will receive 2.5 percent raises for the three years of the agreement, but see cuts to benefits for surviving family members and workers' compensation for the severely disabled. Overtime will no longer be factored into computing retirement benefits.

Steve Sarnoff, president of the local Communications Workers of America union, which represents about 500 employees in departments like libraries, parks and solid waste, said employees were "taking the biggest hit" in dealing with pension cutbacks.

"We're in the middle of a storm we had nothing to do with," Sarnoff said. "But we're in a rowboat, and we need to survive."

Contact Drew Harwell at (727) 445-4170 or dharwell@tampabay.com.

Clearwater and its cops come to an agreement on pensions 12/30/11 [Last modified: Friday, December 30, 2011 6:06pm]

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