N.H. first responders call on legislators to restore pension benefits
Firefighters and police officers say pension cuts in 2012 are a reason why recruitment is low
By Kevin Landrigan
The New Hampshire Union Leader
CONCORD, N.H. — First responders said they will have more vacancies in their depleted ranks if the Legislature doesn’t restore pension benefits to roughly 1,800 police and fire workers.
Nearly 200 local and state firefighters and police officers packed the Legislative Office Building on Tuesday to urge Senate budget writers to endorse these pension changes, which are attached to a House-passed two-year state budget bill.
The news conference was in response to Gov. Chris Sununu’s statement last week that he opposed any significant changes in public retirement benefits as part of the spending plan.
“This will impact every public safety workforce in our state,” said Manchester Police Chief Allen Aldenberg.
“Now is the time to demonstrate your support through action.”
Supporters held red and white signs that read, “Pension = Retention.”
The changes would restore nearly all pension benefit cuts passed in 2012 by lawmakers to make the system more financially solvent.
At the same time, the Legislature raised the contributions that police and firefighters must make toward their retirement.
Currently, firefighters contribute 11.8% and police 11.55% of their paycheck.
Those affected by these cuts had less than the 10 years needed to vest into the state retirement system.
The change will not affect anyone hired after Jan. 1, 2012. Aldenberg said many of the affected workers are now supervisors in police and fire departments.
The cost to restore the benefit is $25 million a year for a decade.
Michael Geha, president of the New Hampshire Police Association, said the change would encourage first responders to stay on the job for the larger pension.
The retirement age for those affected would be reduced from 50 to 45 after they work 20 years.
“This is really a balancing act and one that is critical if we are going to keep on the job our most skilled and valuable workers,” Geha said.
Frank Campo, a state police sergeant and president of the New Hampshire Troopers Association, said there are 69 vacancies — 20% — in his workforce. Public employee pensions used to be an incentive for first responders to remain on the job, he said.
“In the past, public servants accepted that their salaries would be lower than the private sector but banked on having an adequate pension benefit. That is no longer the case,” Campo said.
Portsmouth Fire Department Capt. Brian Ryll, president of the Professional Fire Fighters of New Hampshire, said the yearly number of recruits taking the firefighter exam has fallen from a high of 548 in 2009 to just over 200.
“New Hampshire firefighters are finding it increasingly difficult to dedicate their lives to a profession that compromises their health, safety and workforce balance in exchange for low pay and a reduced retirement,” Ryll said.
Several speakers said they found Sununu’s comments “disappointing” but held out hope he can be convinced to support this change as part of a compromise budget.
“As a trusted friend and ally, we are counting on him to work with (the) Senate Finance (Committee) to do just that,” Ryll said.
Salem Fire Chief Lawrence Best also spoke in favor of this change on behalf of the New Hampshire Association of Fire Chiefs.