The Town Council last week took much-anticipated strides toward improving pay structures and pension plans for police and firefighters that would put those employees more in line with their counterparts in neighboring municipalities.
During a special meeting Thursday, council members and town officials discussed the importance of base compensation, merit pay and retirement benefits in attracting and retaining quality employees.
“There’s a lot of positive discussions, which we’re excited about,” Fire-Rescue Division Chief Sean Baker said in an interview Friday. “We’re just grateful for the support of not only the Town Council, but Town Manager Kirk Blouin, the Civic Association and the town residents for their work in this. At the end of the day, we’re all better off if we can be competitive with other divisions.”
The town has struggled to retain public safety employees since 2012, when pension cuts and low morale began sending some fleeing to neighboring municipalities.
Now, town officials are working to revamp the overall compensation and benefits plans, which they say have not been thoroughly reviewed in 14 years.
“Let’s give our great officers in public safety a reason to stay here, and let’s go with where the market is,” said council member Bobbie Lindsay.
The council discussed replacing the existing merit-based pay plan with a 10-step pay plan similar to what other municipalities offer.
The new plan, which would apply to public safety employees who are not in supervisory roles, would allow employees to reach top tier pay after 10 years, instead of the current 21 years. Employees would receive a set raise each year, while still remaining eligible for merit bonuses.
Although council members expressed a strong desire to enact these changes as soon as possible, they were unable to finalize anything because the market analyses on which they planned to base their decisions turned out to be too broad for local application.
Danielle Olson, director of human resources for the town, presented a report based on salary surveys obtained by Evergreen Solutions, the firm hired to gather data on how nearby municipalities, particularly those to which the town has lost employees, compensate public safety workers.
The salaries presented in the report were from Miami-Dade, Broward and Palm Beach counties. But council members said the data was too broad to rely on to make informed decisions because some of it had been adjusted for cost of living and some of it came from communities, such as Miami Beach, that are not comparable to the town.
“The statistical application of these numbers is problematic,” said Blouin, urging council members to obtain refined data before making any decisions.
Blouin pointed out that the immediate and long-term effects of compensation decisions are significant, and as such, should not be rushed. “The goal here is to provide fair and competitive compensation to our employees while at the same time being fair to the taxpayers,” he said.
In the end, the council asked Olson to obtain new numbers from Evergreen Solutions that exclude Miami-Dade County and are not adjusted for cost of living. Members also requested a separate data set to include only Palm Beach County.
“We don’t have an apples-to-apples comparison,” said council member Lew Crampton of the current data. “Clearly, we need to go back and get the right numbers.”
Because of the time it will take to obtain and process new data, the council agreed to postpone any final decisions about compensation until its next special meeting, which is set for April 23.
In the meantime, the council agreed on a variety of changes to benefits for public safety employees that will be voted on once compensation is finalized and a final budget is approved. Those include:
* Lowering the retirement eligibility from 56 to 55 years of age, assuming a minimum of 10 years of service;
* Adopting a 25-in-and-out policy, which would make anyone at any age eligible for retirement after 25 years of service;
* Keeping the retirement multiplier at 2.75 (Formula: Years worked x 2.75% x average of last five years’ salary = annual pension income);
* Reducing the workweek for firefighters from 50.4 hours to 48 hours; and
* Changing firefighters’ pay cycle from 28 days to 21 days.
“I think we moved the needle here,” council member Margaret Zeidman said of what the council was able to accomplish. “We made a decision about where we’re heading.”
At the next special meeting, Zeidman said, the council hopes to finalize compensation packages for public safety and for general employees.
“We need to have this done by June,” she said, “because we have a budget to prepare and we start that process in July.”