By Mike Crowley
The Meadville Tribune, Pa.
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MEADVILLE, Pa. — A pension reform policy considered key to the city of Meadville’s future financial stability just a few years ago was eliminated Monday in a move officials described as a response to an ongoing public safety crisis.
Meadville City Council members voted 4-0 to approve a four-year labor agreement with the union that restores traditional pensions for members of the union that represents the city’s police officers. The agreement takes effect next year and continues through 2026. Deputy Mayor Larry McKnight was absent from the meeting.
The vote came after Chief Michael Tautin delivered a “state of the department” address that painted Meadville as unable to compete against other municipalities in the region for police staffing. Without a change, he said, Meadville Police Department soon would not be able to field enough officers to patrol the city around the clock.
The department’s ongoing staffing shortage has taken a toll, Tautin told council.
“These guys are working so much overtime,” he said, “it’s putting strains on marriages, fathers aren’t seeing their kids, they’re here constantly. They’re to a breaking point where they’re tired. They’re just — they’re tired. If we don’t do something soon to change this, I can’t staff the streets 24 hours. I can’t ask any more than I am.”
With the new labor contract approved, Tautin was optimistic about seeing immediate benefits. The city’s Civil Service Board meets Wednesday to certify a list of potential new officer candidates. After that, the department will be able make job offers that could produce longer lasting results than has been the case in recent years.
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The department, which has consistently been short-staffed for several years, is currently three officers short of the full complement of 22 staff members, according to Tautin. Even as new officers have been hired, others have resigned. In one recent case, an officer resigned before having completed his initial training period. Six officers resigned over the past year to take similar positions with other departments in the region, Tautin said, and in each case, the department’s lack of a traditional pension was cited as a primary motivation.
“When they left, they said, ‘I love it here, I love the guys, I love the community. I like working here,'” Tautin said. “‘It does not make sense for my family each day for me to stay. There’s no future in this department.'”
The effect of being the only department in the region without a traditional pension has been clear, according to Assistant Chief Michael Stefanucci.
“It’s been nothing short of a revolving door at the bottom of our seniority lists,” he said after the meeting.
But the department’s staffing concerns pre-date its switch away from traditional pensions. In fact, when the council approved the 2015 contract that made the change, the department was operating four officers short of a full complement.
In early 2015, City Council and the Fraternal Order of Police Lodge 97, the union that represents the city’s officers, agreed to a four-year contract that eliminated the traditional defined-benefit pension for new members of the department. Instead, newly hired officers were enrolled in a defined contribution plan, similar to a 401(k).
A defined benefit plan guarantees a monthly pension payment from the employer for life after the employee retires. Under a defined contribution plan, the employee and the city contribute an amount monthly while the employee is working. When the employee retires or leaves their job, the city’s obligation ends.
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When the 2015 agreement was approved, then-City Manager Andy Walker said, “The pension reform goes a long way toward sustaining a level of manpower and service for our citizens.”
The switch to defined contribution plans for the city’s police union members was accompanied by a similar change for employees in the American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees union, which represents the city’s service personnel, such as secretaries and bookkeepers.
When 2015 negotiations to implement a similar change for the city’s firefighters went nowhere, the city pursued arbitration. After more than two years without a contract, the city was eventually awarded the defined benefit plan it had wanted for new firefighter hires, putting all three unions in the same camp.
Following Monday’s meeting, City Manager Maryann Menanno said the new police contract was not a return to the past.
“They gave it eight years,” she said of the switch to defined contribution plans. “Eight years ago, the narrative was, ‘Everybody’s going in this direction — we’ll be ahead of the curve.’ Eight years has elapsed and that has not happened, and because of that they have fallen behind.”
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Menanno said Tautin’s plea to council reflected the “crisis level” the department is facing.
“They’re working hundreds of hours of overtime, they’re being called in after three-hour breaks between shifts,” she said.
The new contract requires officers to contribute 5 percent of their base salary to the police pension fund.
FOP Local 97 President Neil Falco, a detective sergeant in the department, said he was happy with the agreement. Asked if it was a victory for the union, he said, “Yes.”
But Menanno said that the union made concessions along with obtaining its return to traditional pensions. Among those concessions is the return of a city residency requirement for new officers. With the new contract, new officers must reside within the city within six months of being hired and must continue to reside in the city until they have been on the force for three years after their initial probationary period.
Requirements that any union members live inside the city had been dropped in 2019, though officers were required to live within 25 miles of the city — a requirement that still applies to officers hired before the agreement takes effect.
Union members also gave up certain post-retirement health care benefits and cost-of-living adjustments. While the return to traditional pensions could cost the city an additional $50,000 to $75,000 each year, Menanno said, the savings on post-retirement health care benefits could be even more.
Tautin, himself a member of the police union’s collective bargaining unit for more than 15 years before becoming chief in 2017, said his support for returning to traditional pensions was “an argument on the side of the city itself” rather than the union.
“I can’t protect the city,” he said, “if I don’t have employees.”
(c)2022 The Meadville Tribune (Meadville, Pa.)
Distributed by Tribune Content Agency, LLC.
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