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Commentary: Obligations to the public create a public obligation

This article first appeared in the St. Louis Beacon, March 8, 2012 - There is only one proven alternative to aging, and it’s generally not very popular. Given the dearth of attractive options, most of us will attempt to hang around long enough to become a burden to society.

Though financial planners and pharmaceutical salesmen like to portray the “golden years” as a carefree excursion into a wonderland of shuffleboard and Viagra, the simple fact is that one’s earning potential tends to diminish as the years pile up. The problem is not a new one.

The Romans levied the first inheritance tax to fund the pensions of legionnaires who’d grown too old to fight. FDR implemented Social Security to provide the elderly a decent level of subsistence. With the notable exceptions of Republican presidential candidates and Eskimos, most civilized people view some form of senior care as a fundamental social obligation. Difficulties arise, however, when we get down to the details of how to provide it.

The crisis du jour in St. Louis city governance revolves around just that issue. City Hall is laboring beneath the weight of its pension obligations, and the mayor is demanding significant reductions in the police and fire retirement plans.

Before proceeding, allow me to warn that I am not a disinterested observer in this matter. I receive a monthly pension for the 21 years I spent as a city cop and am presently vested in a separate city pension by virtue of my 12 years’ (and counting) service at the sheriff’s office. While I obviously have a dog in this fight, significant facts have been largely ignored in the public debate over the proposals — namely, the advantages the city derives from the existing arrangement.

People who report to work in burning buildings or spend their evenings chasing social deviants through darkened alleys tend to be young. Without discounting the efforts of female employees, this kind of work is commonly referred to as a “young man’s game.” Police and fire plans provide for retirement at a relatively young age in tacit recognition of that fact.

The early out not only benefits the member but the citizenry as well. Do you really think the 64-year-old cop is going to be able to chase down the 18-year-old stick-up man? One proposed change would make 55 the minimum age at which an employee could receive a pension. While that’s not totally unreasonable, it’s worth noting that in federal law enforcement, 57 is the mandatory age for retirement. The proposed local minimum is thus nearly the federal maximum.

Paradoxically, the prospect of a 20-year pension can actually help to retain personnel. After a decade on the street, a police officer is usually at his peak professional value: trained, experienced and still young enough to do something about it. But by then, much of the glamour of police work has vanished into the thin air from whence it came, and the cop’s probably figured out that the world will invariably defeat his best efforts to save it.

At that point, it can be tempting to get out of the business altogether or to desert the city for a softer — and better paying — gig in a suburban department or a federal agency. The knowledge that there’s light at the end of the tunnel and you’re halfway to it has kept more than one cop on the beat.

The city has also realized financial benefits from the independent plans. From October 1992, until September 2002, taxpayers contributed nothing — zero — for police pensions. During that decade-long payment holiday, member contributions and investment income funded the program in its entirety. If the cops were simply covered by Social Security like most workers, the city would have been required to pay 6.2 percent of total payroll in each of those years for the employer-match mandated by federal law.

To recognize the benefits of the current system, however, is not to deny that problems exist. One of these is the alarming statistic that 48 percent of city fire-fighters retire with costly disability pensions. To put that number into perspective, consider that during the invasion of Iwo Jima, 37 percent of American forces were wounded or killed. If you’re taking casualties at a rate 11 percent higher than the Marine Corps suffered in one of history’s bloodiest battles, it would seem to be time to rethink your tactics, redefine “disability” or both.

There is also controversy over the so-called “lump sum” payment given to retirees. Presently, the system refunds all the employee’s contributions upon retirement while retaining only the interest that money earned over the years. The city would like to do away with the program; the cops and fire-fighters obviously want to keep it.

Q: Are there any numbers between 0 and 100 percent?

In the wake of 9/11, cops and fire-fighters became national heroes — altruistic giants who routinely performed superhuman feats. After the financial crash of 2008, they were transformed into greedy tax-eaters shamelessly feeding at the public trough. Both perspectives are ridiculously inaccurate.

The men and women in blue are simply ordinary people who are sometimes called upon to provide extraordinary service. Once you recognize that obvious fact, it’s easy to see that public safety is brought to you on a street that runs both ways.