Opinions

OPINION: Alaska is failing our first responders

State Capitol building

Paul Jenkins, Lyda Green and others who have criticized House Bill 55 are right when they say Alaska should approach cautiously when considering modifications to our retirement system.

It is absolutely prudent not to rush into anything, but House Bill 55 is anything but rushed. It is the product of 16 years of work with legislators of all parties, different administrations, the Division of Retirement and Benefits and independent actuaries. Over those 16 years, various bills have been introduced, and the specific plan contained in House Bill 55 was first introduced five years ago. There have now been three consecutive Legislatures that have scrutinized this specific plan.

HB 55 aims to address two massive problems that we see with public safety today — recruitment and retention difficulties, and the embarrassing lack of retirement security that all of our public safety employees hired after 2006 face.

The head administrators of police and fire departments from across the state, commissioners and governors have all spoken about and testified to the recruitment and retention difficulties our public safety agencies in Alaska face.

The one issue that has not gotten much attention publicly, however, is the lack of retirement security for our first responders with our current retirement system. There is no longer any debate about the problem. Three independent sources — the state’s chief investment officer, the Division of Retirement and Benefits, and independent actuaries all agree — our current system sets our public safety employees up for failure in retirement. To say it is inadequate is to put it very lightly.

Mr. Bob Mitchell, the state’s chief investment officer, produced a simulation in 2019 that shows just how drastic this inadequacy is. A 25-year police officer or firefighter with no Social Security or SBS has a 94% chance of running out of money within 30 years after retirement. A 30-year member has a 78% chance of running out of money. It is not a well-known fact, but most of our municipal police officers and firefighters in Alaska do not receive Social Security. They only receive a 5% contribution to a 401(a) account. This is less than a Social Security contribution alone would be anywhere in the private sector. This is the value our state has placed on our first responders.

Additionally, Mr. Mitchell’s projections are arguably generous as they use 70% income replacement for 30 years of retirement as a benchmark, a figure that most retirement experts say should be 70%-90%. They also don’t account for the need to pay out-of-pocket for pre-Medicare age health care coverage. The average age of hire for public safety in Alaska is 31 years old. Since HB 55 provides no pre-Medicare coverage, this means the average retiree will have to pay for health care premiums for 10 years prior to becoming eligible for Medicare.

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There is no getting around this problem. Our public safety servants are being told in no uncertain terms that they will run out of money in retirement. Even supplemental savings cannot make up for these kinds of shortfalls. This means law enforcement officers and firefighters who after a career of risking their lives for our communities will be in a position where they will be unable to care for even their most basic of needs when they retire. This is no exaggeration.

House Bill 55 was crafted as a reasonable and conservative solution to this problem. So conservative, in fact, that it has drawn criticism from some public safety unions as not being a generous enough plan.

In 2021, HB 55 passed out of the House with bipartisan support. It now sits in the Senate Finance Committee.

Nearly all lawmakers speak about how they support public safety, and how it is one of the fundamental roles of our government as set forth in the Alaska Constitution. Now is the time for the Legislature to show its support for the men and women who are out on the front lines keeping our communities safe each and every day.

Paul Miranda is an 11-year Anchorage firefighter, Tier 4 member and the president of the Alaska Professional Firefighters Association.

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