Tuesday, December 12, 2017
Politics

Clearwater referendums would cut pension costs, reward job creators

CLEARWATER — Amid a forest of campaign signs posted across the street from the Pinellas County Courthouse, there's a hand-painted black-and-white one that reads, "Vote no on city pensions ref. #1"

But aside from a few signs, there has been little public opposition to a referendum question on Tuesday's ballot that would reshape the pension system for Clearwater's public employees.

The main reason for that? The employees themselves have agreed to the plan.

The police officers, firefighters and municipal workers who belong to Clearwater's three public employee unions collectively bargained these pension changes with the city, then ratified the changes with a vote of 687-166.

They did so to keep their pension plan viable, even though they'll be paying more into their pensions while losing some retirement benefits.

"That's the price we paid in order to meet the demands of the city. We got the best deal we could to preserve the pension the best way we could," said Steve Sarnoff, president of the local Communications Workers of America, which represents about 500 Clearwater employees in departments like libraries, parks and solid waste.

The reforms are the city's latest attempts to cut pension costs, which officials say have more than tripled in the past decade.

The changes also mark another belt-tightening moment for public employees. For example, police officers would 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 take-home pay.

The reforms would save the city $5 million in pension spending in the first year, officials said, and up to $400 million over 30 years.

Of course, the referendum has to pass first.

The current City Council isn't allowed to campaign for its passage. But former Mayor Frank Hibbard noted that he'll vote "yes" on the referendum because it would save the city millions. "If this question is defeated," he said, "that money will have to come from increased taxes or reduced levels of service."

Actually, Clearwater has two referendums on Tuesday's ballot. They're all the way at the end of the four-page ballot, meaning that some voters may not get that far.

"The city of Clearwater's referendums are the last two items on your ballot," Mayor George Cretekos announced to voters at a recent City Council meeting. "Please make sure you vote for those two items."

The city's other referendum would allow Clearwater's government to offer city property tax exemptions to new or expanding businesses that create new jobs.

If the referendum passes, the City Council would gain the power to do that for companies that are creating at least 10 high-wage jobs. The company could get a tax break for up to 10 years for business improvements such as a new or expanded building, or new equipment purchased in connection with relocating or expanding.

How would the city make sure the companies fulfill their promises? The city says businesses would have to file an annual report.

Mike Brassfield can be reached at [email protected] or (727) 445-4151.

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