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Teachers, police officers and firefighters upset about Scott's pension plans

Megan Allen teaches special-needs students at Cleveland Elementary in Tampa, a tough job under any circumstances. She does it so well that last year she was Florida's Teacher of the Year.

Now Gov. Rick Scott wants to take some of her pay away — a move that teachers, firefighters and other public employees say will hurt education, hamper law enforcement and chase good people away from public employment.

Scott, in the budget he unveiled Monday, called for an overhaul of the state's pension system for teachers, police officers, firefighters and other state and county workers. He wants them to contribute 5 percent of their pay to their retirement accounts, instead of the state covering the entire expense. Most states require at least some employees to contribute toward their retirement.

Allen said it would be fair for Scott to ask teachers to contribute only if they were being paid a salary comparable to what they could earn in the private sector.

The governor predicted that many public employees will complain, but told supporters, "What we have to remember is we're doing this for the sake of our children and grandchildren."

But that's just who will suffer if the Legislature approves Scott's budget, teachers contend.

While Allen was Teacher of the Year, she visited districts where teachers' pay put them below the poverty line already. Even so, many of them tried to supplement their classroom supplies out of their own pockets.

"I don't feel like we have the flexibility to be reaching further into our pockets and contributing to our pensions," Allen said. "I think when we're talking about all these reforms, we need to think about the impact it's going to have on our students."

For Monica Capabiano, a Pasco County school guidance counselor for 30 years, Scott's proposal comes at a time when she and her colleagues already haven't had a raise in three years.

"We're getting blows from all angles," she said. Her decision to go into teaching "was never about the money. But we planned so that we could survive and not go on food stamps. Now someone is changing our plan midstream."

Pinellas Sheriff Jim Coats, a Republican who was part of Scott's law enforcement transition team, said Scott's proposal surprised him. Coats said he spoke with Scott twice about pension changes and thought the governor would demand only a fraction of a percent be steered to pensions.

"To make existing employees contribute, what is it 5 percent? I think that's a little harsh," said Coats, who plans to lobby Scott to change it. "I think it will have potentially adverse impact on our recruiting activities and retention, and I think it will have an impact on morale."

Ralph Grant, a captain in Pasco Fire Rescue who is eight years from retirement, estimated the shift would cost him $3,500 a year.

"You've got to understand, when we took these positions for public service, it was not the high salaries they were paying," Grant said. "You take the public service jobs for the benefits, for the pension."

These kinds of cuts take a toll on everything government does — from picking up garbage to dealing with crime and punishment — say officials who object to Scott's proposal.

If cuts to the courts are continued year after year, it could "effectively destroy the branch of government," said Pinellas-Pasco Chief Circuit Judge Thomas McGrady. "I'm not saying we're there yet. But we may at some point reach that."

Pinellas-Pasco Public Defender Bob Dillinger said his employees haven't had a raise in five years, so they're not thrilled at deferring another 5 percent — and that could affect caseloads.

"I have staff leaving for lesser-paying jobs because those jobs at least hold out the hope of a raise or a bonus down the road," he said. "The last three ... went to lower-paying jobs because they thought they had at least the chance of making more money. They were people I really didn't want to lose."

The governor said the proposal, which must be approved by the Legislature, would save the state $2.8 billion over the next two years, although he would not detail how he came up with that figure. The state is facing a budget shortfall that may top $4 billion next year.

Five percent would mean about $150 each month for Matthew Goldrick, who runs a math lab at Chocachatti Elementary School in Brooksville.

Teachers go into the profession to make a difference, not to get rich, said Goldrick, a 40-year-old married father of two. But the constant cutbacks make it harder and harder to stick to the job.

"Yes, it's not the greatest pay, but you get good time off and benefits, and that's becoming less true," said Goldrick. "Health insurance was the first to go, and now this is the next step. Why would you want to teach when those things are falling away?"

Times staff writers Jeffrey S. Solochek, Curtis Krueger and Tony Marrero contributed to this report.

Teachers, police officers and firefighters upset about Scott's pension plans 02/07/11 [Last modified: Monday, February 7, 2011 11:21pm]
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