Fla. police, firefighters can retire early with pensions under new bill

Under the revised policy, police and firefighters can retire at age 55 or with 25 years of service, whichever comes first

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By Jack Evans, C.T. Bowen, Barbara Behrendt
Tampa Bay Times

TAMPA, Fla. — A swath of public worker unions in Florida secured victories in the state’s last legislative session.

Lawmakers restored major sweeteners to pensions for law enforcement officers, firefighters and others categorized as “special risk” that already pay them 90% of their average best years’ salaries in retirement. Now they can once again start collecting those benefits sooner.

Under the revised policy, they can retire at age 55 or with 25 years of service, whichever comes first. It’s the same threshold those employs had prior to 2011, when legislators cut benefits in the wake of the Great Recession and extended first responders’ retirement dates by five years.

“It’s a hazardous career,” said state Sen. Ed Hooper, R-Clearwater, himself a retired firefighter who sponsored an initial bill to boost first-responder benefits.

The perk, projected to cost county governments tens of millions of dollars annually, ultimately passed as part of a larger bill among other changes to the Florida Retirement System. Those include benefits for employees across the board, including expansions to the state’s deferred retirement program and increases to retirees’ health insurance subsidies.

Now counties are grappling with how to pay for those changes. Combined with an annual adjustment to retirement system rates, they’re estimated to cost Florida’s counties a total of $325 million in the next fiscal year, according to a legislative staff analysis.

The Pinellas County Sheriff’s Office has told the county it expects the changes to cost the agency $13.1 million in the next fiscal year, said Chris Rose, the county’s budget director. Rose’s office has estimated retirement system adjustments for the rest of the county to be about $4.5 million. The county’s proposed budget will be released Tuesday.

Hillsborough County’s budget includes $20 million to cover the changes in retirement contributions.

In a spending plan of more than $9.1 billion, a $20 million allocation might seem like something easily absorbed, particularly since it is spread across several internal accounts within the proposed budget. But here’s another way to look at it: $20 million is half of all the new property tax revenue in the budget for unincorporated Hillsborough County, which covers about two-thirds of the county population. It’s equal to nearly half the operating budget for the parks and recreation department and is more than the county spends on code enforcement, pet resources or social services.

In Pasco County, the proposed budget shows an increase of about $6 million in expected retirement spending.

The changes, and that counties now have to grapple with them in their budgets, underscore the balance the state has to strike, said Florida Association of Counties spokesperson Cragin Mosteller — “How do we create a good retirement system” that works for both counties and their employees?

In that sense, several of the new policies hold great promise, said Bob McKee, the Association of Counties’ deputy director of public policy. He pointed toward expansions to the Deferred Retirement Option Program, commonly known as DROP. It allows employees to divert pension payments before they retire toward a lump-sum payment they get when they leave. Employees of all types can now stay on the plan for eight years, up from five, and the interest rate on their deferred benefits is up from 1.3% to 4%.

The changes give employees more flexibility and both enable and incentivize them to stay on the job longer, McKee said. It’s good for retirement benefits and for counties that want to retain older employees.

Of the $325 million in estimated cost to counties, McKee said, more than a third of that comes from an annual actuarial adjustment of retirement rates — it would have happened even if the Legislature hadn’t passed any policy changes. That leaves $200 million in remaining costs, but McKee said analyses haven’t shown how much of that is due to one kind of policy change (the deferred retirement expansion, for example) versus another (such as a 50% increase in health insurance subsidies for retirees).

There’s one exception: the retirement-age changes for first responders, which were calculated as part of Hooper’s original bill. A legislative analysis of that bill pegged the cost at about $55 million for counties, McKee said.

Hooper, a retired Clearwater fire lieutenant, was a member of the state House in 2011, when the Legislature increased the retirement age and pulled back other benefits. He’s been looking for ways to restore benefits since he was first elected to the state Senate in 2018, he said, and Florida’s fiscal health presented a good opportunity this year.

Hooper had heard from sheriffs and fire chiefs that the benefits they offered couldn’t compete with those in many municipalities, making it harder to hold on to employees. When Hooper himself retired, he recalled, Clearwater required only 20 years of service. And it included cost-of-living adjustments, which still haven’t been restored for employees in the state system after being scrapped in 2011.

“I don’t want a 60-year-old cop trying to chase down a bank robber, or maybe having to do CPR on me for 20 minutes,” Hooper said. “I’ve done that, and that’s hard work.”

Much of the lobbying support for his bill came from the statewide Florida Professional Firefighters union.

“We heard from our membership repeatedly; this is a big deal to us,” said Meredith Stanfield, the union’s legislative policy director. “Five additional years is five additional years of exposure to toxic chemicals that cause cancer, to incidents that cause PTSD.”

The Fraternal Order of Police, Police Benevolent Association, Florida Sheriffs Association and Florida Police Chiefs Association also backed the bill, Hooper said, an alliance of public safety managers and workers he said he’d never seen. Stanfield called it “unprecedented.”

This comes in the same year as a new law restricting the dues-payment process for most public sector unions, a move DeSantis requested in an effort to target teachers unions.

Hooper noted that the police and fire unions backed DeSantis in his reelection bid last year, and that the Police Benevolent Association has endorsed the governor in what Hooper called “his next adventure,” a presidential campaign.

“I’m guessing they both feel like they’re held in good stead with the governor,” he said. “That’s the time to do what you need to do.”

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