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Pension's past complicates EMS benefit comparison

ST. PETERSBURG — This city's pension problems seem to have no end, but the beginnings can be traced to mistakes that are more than 40 years old.

Those were the days when St. Petersburg's police officers and firefighters could look forward to some pretty rich benefits come retirement. Trouble was, city officials never bothered to check whether the pension could afford to pay those benefits.

When officials did finally check — in 1969 — they found to their horror that the plan was severely underfunded.

"They just basically didn't put up enough money towards the plans," St. Petersburg City Administrator Tish Elston said.

The result: St. Petersburg restructured the plan in 1970 to one with "less rich" benefits, decided to audit the plan annually and established a payment plan to make up the lack of funds.

That debt is about 81 percent paid off now and, if all goes well, should be about 89 percent paid off by 2016.

But it's unclear when it will finally be paid because of the many variables that affect the amounts that need to be put into pension funds. Those variables include stock market performance, the number of people who retire and how long they live.

The result is that it is impossible to compare current benefits with other departments when looking at county-funded paramedics. While the county is paying the back pension, the amount is skewed because of those payments.

"The pension plan is sound because I think we always have a substantially funded plan but we are continuously playing catch-up," Elston said. "I don't see that really going away anytime soon."

Reach Anne Lindberg at alindberg@tampabay.com or (727) 893-8450 or twitter.com/alindbergtimes.

Pension's past complicates EMS benefit comparison 05/15/10 [Last modified: Friday, May 14, 2010 3:19pm]
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