6/3/08

Like a gov't-union scorned

Public safety unions play rough

No one in Hollywood (FL) thinks the investigations launched against Beam Furr have much to do with his real transgression. Commissioner Furr crossed the fire and police unions. Foolish fellow. And now he's gotta pay.

The unions filed a couple of petty complaints, one with the state ethics commission, another with the state attorney's office. They claimed Furr, a Flanagan High School media specialist, misused a couple of sick days in January when he took time off work to campaign for his commission seat.

Unions aren't usually sticklers about malingering but Furr had them riled.

It wasn't so much when Furr was campaigning. Or even who he was campaigning against -- although he knocked out the union's candidate in the Jan. 29 election.

It was how Furr campaigned.

He broke the taboo. He maligned the sacred. He dissed fire and police pensions.

A FISCAL TIME BOMB

It was an audacious violation of the unspoken pact between politicians and public safety unions. Cities and counties grant lush retirement deals that allow a police officer or firefighter to retire after 20 or 25 years, with a pension that pays around 80 percent of annual pay. Elected officials, in return, wallow in union support.

They know that the fiscal time bombs tucked into bulging pension packages won't explode until well after term limits have kicked in. Escalating costs, destined to eventually devour a city budget, will be someone else's problem.

GOOD PAY NOW

But Furr broke the rule. His campaign website carried disconcerting stats that show how, as pension fund investments faltered over the last seven years, Hollywood taxpayers have been forced to ante up ever greater portions of the total pension contributions -- from 15.12 percent in 2001 to 68.72 percent last year.

The city now pays $8 for every $1 contributed by an individual firefighter or police officer into his own pension fund.

It's only going to get worse, Furr warned. "I believe the men and women who work for Hollywood deserve good pay, a fair pension and decent benefits, but it has to be within our means. It has to be sustainable. We are digging ourselves a hole that our children's children won't be able to crawl out of."

THE TRUTH HURTS

True, maybe. But such truths amount to blaspheme in a town where the public safety unions play rough.

Of course, it's not just Hollywood. Miami's police and fire pension costs have ballooned from $7 million in 2001 to $58 million in 2007. It's a pattern repeated across Florida (and across the nation). Pensions undreamed of in the private sector are doled out as showy appreciation for tough, dangerous jobs.

But instead of honestly paying firefighters and police officers commensurate salaries up front, politicians prefer to approve 20-year retirement packages that shunt most of the costs onto someone else, someone down the road.

An elected official in another major Broward town (''Please leave me out of your story. My car is well known and I don't want to get pulled over!'') complained that no one city can fix the problem without throwing itself out of whack with the labor market. But he warned, ``Public safety pensions are not sustainable. They need to be dealt with in the future or they'll bankrupt government.''

True maybe. But telling the truth about public safety pensions makes for dangerous politics in Florida. Just ask Beam Furr.

(miamiherald.com)

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