April 19, 2013 in City

Union chief: LEOFF-1 firefighters a minority

By The Spokesman-Review
 

Kelly Fox has been the president of the Washington State Council of Fire Fighters union since 1996, and he’s been a firefighter in Olympia longer than that.

So he is understandably defensive about some of the things that have been written about people who do that job in Washington, following the recent Associated Press series about pension abuses. Fox thinks that people may not understand a crucial bit of context about the pension abuses – the fact that they were entirely centered on a system that was changed decades ago.

“The line firefighter who goes out on calls all day long … we’re not the guys who did that,” said Fox. “But we’re the ones who are going to see the citizens out there saying, ‘You’re sticking it to us and taking money from poor kids.’ ”

Fox’s choice of words there was specific. Because it was I, not long ago, who wrote that pension-spiking firefighters were sticking it to us and hurting poor kids.

Now, I really did, and really do, think that. The people who are busily looking for reasons not to pay for schools, social services, parks – and that is most of us – will dine out on the stories of pension abuse for years. That kind of pension gaming, by cities looking to push firefighters off their payrolls and by the firefighters themselves, will have a political cost that far exceeds its financial one.

Fox gets that. But as one of the vast majority of firefighters who are outside the retirement system that is ripest for abuse, he feels that when someone like me writes about what “firefighters” are doing, that I’m painting with an enormous brush.

“It is not a complete picture,” Fox said.

The pension-spiking abuses were uncovered by an AP reporter who did a three-part series on various problems in the pension, disability and medical systems for state workers. The series included an example of three firefighters in Lakewood who received raises just weeks before retirement that drove up their lifetime pensions by as much as $1 million, collectively.

Those firefighters are part of the LEOFF-1 pension system, a lavish and expensive system that was replaced in 1977. Most of the abuses or problems uncovered by the AP stories involved LEOFF-1 pensioners. Many critics of the AP series, and of my column, say there was an insufficient explanation about how small LEOFF-1 is, relatively, and the fact that it is so well-funded that the state has not needed to contribute to it for 13 years.

Fox said that around 200 working firefighters and cops around the state are part of the LEOFF-1 system – relatively few cops or firefighters on the plan are still working. Of course, around 8,000 retirees are now covered by the plan, and the ongoing expense of their retirements is by no means a closed matter.

Fox was emphatic in repeatedly noting that he did not support the kinds of pension spiking that occurred. But he was also emphatic that such abuses could not occur under the LEOFF-2 system. For one thing, he said, retirement benefits for those firefighters are established not by final salary, as in LEOFF-1, but by the highest 60-month average pay a firefighter received.

He and others have also argued that when it comes to the LEOFF-1 retirements, we’re not talking about frontline firefighters – the people out there in the communities, going out on calls – but on late-career folks who have moved into management.

“You’re talking about very few people, and it’s primarily folks who have … 34, 35, 36 years on the job,” he said.

Finally, Fox took issue with the impression that all retiring firefighters were seeing big late-career raises. The AP reported that LEOFF-1 retirees saw an average of 5.5 percent raises in their last year of employment; at a time of deep budget-cutting, such a pattern is loathsome. And it is in no way mitigated by the fact that the LEOFF-1 system is well-funded – there are millions of state tax dollars in that fund that are not simply there to be plundered.

But Fox argues that LEOFF-2 firefighters are not seeing such late-career raises, in part because the system was reformed to remove the incentive for pension spiking.

“Across the state, we’re seeing most people taking pay freezes, if not reductions,” he said.

Fox makes fair points. For my money, the most important thing he does is avoid attempting to excuse the abuses – which many have done, wrapping themselves up in a self-pitying claim of victimhood at the hands of the press – while attempting to stick up for the basic decency of his members.

“This really does hit us hard as an organization and a profession,” he said.

Shawn Vestal can be reached at (509) 459-5431 or shawnv@spokesman.com. Follow him on Twitter at @vestal13.

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