By PAULA TRACY, InDepthNH.org
CONCORD – With concern for the retention of 1,731 police and firefighters across the state at stake, House and Senate leaders will seek more information and need at least another week to make a recommendation for their future retirement benefits package.
More actuarial data numbers were requested on various retirement scenarios by the Retirement Benefits Commission, which met Thursday in Concord in hopes of deciding between a few proposals.
A deadline looms for a report and recommendation to the full House and Senate coming at the end of this month with the potential for an answer and new terms to be laid out as early as March.
Union representatives said there is a concern for retaining life safety workers who may consider quitting for long-term better pay elsewhere, and that would put cities and town and state police coverage at risk at a time when there are many vacancies.
An overhaul of the system 10 years ago reduced how benefits were determined for law enforcement and firefighter members of the system, but not for those with the 10 years needed to be vested.
A legislative fix in House Bill 436 was rejected this spring, knowing that those workers might walk, but a promise by leadership to work on the issue. That led to this commission which has a report due Dec. 1.
While the commission waits another week for more data, what was clear from leaders at the meeting Thursday is that this needs to be addressed now.
House Speaker Sherman Packard, R-Londonderry, said he would “mildly insist” that this saga end.
“Let’s fix this thing once and for all and move on,” he said.
Senate President Jeb Bradley, R-Wolfeboro, also a commission member, said that state coffers appear to be filling up faster than projected to help pay for this up front but is still unsure if there is enough money, considering the Youth Development Center abuse settlements have to be paid out as well from those additional sources.
October revenues have not yet been posted but they are better, Bradley said, and the new unfunded liability numbers offered to the committee Thursday were “getting into a range we could consider.”
He thanked Marty Karlon, director of communications and legislative affairs for the New Hampshire Retirement System, for keeping it understandable when he offered additional information it received from a private actuarial firm for both amendments, but also asked him Thursday to go back for more breakdowns in time increments before they vote.
The numbers in this negotiating Group B have already gone down by about five percent in a year from 1,824 to 1,731 individuals meaning the costs to the state will be less than previously anticipated.
Two meetings ago, Bradley presented two amendments that would increase benefits for those affected by the change 10 years ago.
One would raise the multiplier in determining retirement benefits to 2.5 percent, and the other would be a two-tiered system raising it to 2.5 percent for those between six and 10 years of service when the calculation was changed and 2.25 percent for those with between four and six years of service.
State Sen. James Gray, R-Rochester, also previously asked the actuarial firm to also consider his proposal which would raise the multiplier to 2.5 percent for all Group 2 employees when they reach the 20-year mark and for all Group 1 employees when they reach the 30-year mark for full benefits.
The study for Bradley’s amendment considered the cost of when employees actually leave the system instead of assuming they would work until their 20-year anniversary when they could collect full benefits.
The original estimates were for the first amendment to cost between $52.2 million and $92.6 million, and the second with less increase in benefits costing $57.1 million.
In one amendment scenario Bradley said “the unfunded liability portion of approximately $44 million I think is getting into the range that I think offers some opportunity for consideration.”
While the October state revenue numbers are not out yet the state was ahead during the last week of the month by about $17 million and that may change slightly, Bradley said, “so I think we could pay for it, in that range, but it’s still, if you think of where we are in terms of the surplus and the outstanding obligation, about 82 percent of the (current) projected surplus now would be used for this purpose.”
Bradley said it gives him “great caution to say that.”
He said Sen. Gray’s proposal would be more affordable and have the benefit of doing something for retention moving forward.
But some members expressed concern with splitting up the middle tier group even further.
They asked if it would be possible to get further actuarial clarity on Gray’s first proposal including what the benefit would look like if the 20 year mark was changed to 15 years and 10 years, respectively.
They will await that data and hope it can come in time for next Thursday’s meeting to decide among what options to recommend.
Brian Ryll of the Professional Firefighters Association has said the issue has gone way beyond restoring benefits to 1,700 to the public’s safety as State Troopers are down 77 positions, while the National Guard has to cover shifts in the state prisons.
“I’m tired of hearing that New Hampshire is the safest state, because we are not,” Ryll said. “We have a real problem here, because we are losing people in this state.”
He said watching Bradley’s floor speech at the end of the session, first responders were confident this would get fixed and noted he said he wanted to look at the revenues and study the costs for the first few months of the new fiscal year.
Ryll said he could support seeking more information but would not be able to support the two-tiered system. He said the line of demarcation for him would be to fix the problem with the first amendment.
The commission can just go ahead and draft a whole new bill which would not be completed until next July, or they can make a recommendation in January and set the new financial structure by as early as March.
Reporter Garry Rayno contributed to this report.