Originally Published: January 26, 2017 6 a.m.
PRESCOTT — Public safety vs. pension costs: That is how Prescott City Council members broke it down when faced with a question over staffing levels in the police and fire departments.
Ultimately — in a hiring decision that is projected to cost the city hundreds of thousands of dollars in long-term pension costs — the council agreed that about 11 new police officers and firefighters should join Prescott’s ranks in coming months.
Central to the issue is a new tier of the PSPRS (Public Safety Personnel Retirement System) pension reform, which is scheduled to go into effect on July 1 – raising a question on whether the city should be hiring new police officers and firefighters prior to that date.
The new PSPRS tier, which won state approval this past year, reduces the pension-contribution cost for the employer (the city). It applies to employees who are hired and enrolled in the PSPRS after July 1, 2017, but does not apply to those already on staff.
The city estimates that under the old tier, each new firefighter would cost Prescott about $3,900 more in the first year (as compared to the new tier), and about $122,000 to $124,000 more over a 25-year career. For police officers, the estimated savings in the new tier would be about $3,700 in the first year, and about $120,000 over a 25-year career.
Although no official action occurred this week, council members reached a consensus that the two city departments should, indeed, add the needed new employees now.
City Manager Michael Lamar led off the discussion by noting that the city had come to the situation through a number of actions over recent months.
Foremost among those actions was the City Council’s acceptance in September 2016 of a $1.5 million federal SAFER (Staffing for Adequate Fire and Emergency Response) grant for the Prescott Fire Department.
Under the grant, the city was authorized to add as many as nine new firefighters by February 2017. Prescott Fire Chief Dennis Light told the council this week that the department is looking to add seven new firefighters on Feb. 6.
The new employees would fill three positions that were frozen during January 2016 budget cuts, as well as filling vacant and soon-to-be-vacant slots due to retirements and resignations.
Addition of the new firefighters will eliminate the need to “brown out” or temporarily close city fire stations, Light said, noting that the city’s Station 73 near the airport has been in a state of “fixed brown-out” for much of the past year.
While the city reportedly could extend the grant’s hiring timeframe until after July 1, Lamar told the council that the Fire Department has already made employment offers to the new firefighters.
Likewise in the police department, the city has four new prospective officers currently going through training in the regional police academy. As recruits, those officers are already viewed as city employees, but are enrolled in the Arizona State Retirement System. Once they graduate from the academy in May, the new officers would be enrolled in the PSPRS.
Lamar asked for direction from the council. “These folks are going to cost more money, no doubt about it,” he told the council, asking “Do we want to back up” and rethink the hiring?
A majority of council members maintained that rescinding the job offers to the recruits would not be good for the prospective employees or the city.
“We made a promise,” Councilman Blair said of the job offers. “Frankly, I can’t turn that back.”
And Councilwoman Jean Wilcox voiced concern about the level of safety being provided with the under-staffed departments, maintaining the city was merely “giving the illusion of public safety.”
City Budget and Finance Director Mark Woodfill pointed out that the estimated costs for the new PSPRS tier are still being finalized, and the projected differences between the tiers are likely on the high end. “It is the worst-case scenario,” he said.
In addition, he noted that two of the prospective employees are “lateral” hires, which means they are already enrolled in PSPRS, so the cost difference would not apply to them.
Officials say the issue was added to the council agenda this week because of questions that have arisen from the public.
Indeed, during the council’s earlier-Tuesday study session, local resident Mary Beth Hrin said hiring new police and fire employees now, before the new tier goes into effect, would be “at best, irresponsible,” and “at worst, a wanton disregard” for the taxpayers.