Public safety to 'look different' under pension plan, local sheriff warns

Updated: Feb. 10, 2017 at 6:18 PM EST
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COLUMBIA, SC (WIS) - Some sheriffs are voicing their concerns, warning that public safety could face budget cuts if one bill filed in the. State House becomes law. Identical bills filed in the House and Senate attempt to fill the state's pension gap.

Under the plan, the deficit of about $25 billion would be erased by the year 2041. The unfunded promise for retirement benefits to state employees would be paid by capping the rate at which state employees contribute to their benefits at 9 percent, for law enforcement, 9.75 percent; the cap on employer contributions would be 18.5 percent in several years.

Some call it unfair that law enforcement rates would be higher than other state employees. Additionally, law enforcement employer contributions would also be higher than other employers', eventually capping at a rate higher than 20 percent of the employee's annual salary.

It's raised worries at the South Carolina Sheriff's Association, and with Newberry County Sheriff Lee Foster.

"Public safety is going to look different," Sheriff Foster says.

Foster says the plan would put the burden mostly on local governments, to fund sheriff's offices and police departments to pay more toward employee retirement benefits.

As legislation limits local governments from taxing, Foster believes the cost will be made up by cutting staff and equipment.

"They'll have to cut personnel. They're going to have to cut services in order to pay for the additional revenue charge," Foster says.

He adds that it's not a great recruiting tool, either. Job dangers, a noncompetitive pay rate, and a shorter life cycle add to the troubles in hiring deputies.

"It's almost like the employee is being villainized for getting us in this problem. We have not," he says.

Executive Director of the South Carolina Sheriff's Association, Jarrod Bruder, has been trying to make sense of the plan.

Traditionally, law enforcement does pay a higher rate than other state employees, because they receive more benefits and can retire sooner. But Bruder says that's accounted for in existing rates paid, without increasing the pay-in rate.

"But somehow over the last several years, there's become a significant gap in what we're paying versus what they're paying and so we're, right now the cap that's being proposed is a three-quarter of a percent higher," Bruder says.

"Law enforcement is our, is the core function of government. Without public safety, you're not going to have economic development, you're not going to have safety in schools, you're not going to have all of these merited things," he says.

Foster says the hike penalizes the officer, deputy, firefighter, but ultimately, the taxpayer.

"Whether it's costing the employee, and whether it's costing the government, the end result is it's costing the taxpayer," he says.

Lawmakers continue to meet with law enforcement, for feedback on the plan to squash the pension deficit.

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