Retirement match for deputies restored to 10%

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Other county workers still at lower level

By AJ Vicens

The Jeffco commissioners have approved funding to restore the county's retirement match for sheriff's deputies to 10 percent, but the rest of the county's employees will have to make do with a smaller match.

Citing an exodus of trained deputies leaving the sheriff's office since the county's retirement match was cut, the commissioners have appropriated $350,000 to restore the 10 percent retirement match, but only for deputies.

County employees have a retirement plan in which the county will match up to 8 percent. The match formerly was 10 percent, but it was cut in January 2008 to save money.

Jeffco Sheriff Ted Mink said he hopes the increased retirement match will stem the tide of deputies heading to other police agencies with more generous benefits. He said that his office has seen an 8 percent attrition rate since the retirement match was cut, nearly double the "acceptable rate." The sheriff's office has lost about 60 of its roughly 700 deputies over the last two years. Mink said many of them cited the retirement match as one of the reasons they left.

Mink added that he understands why other county employees might be upset, but he had to do something to slow the departures.

"I can understand (their anger)," Mink said. "All we did was make a presentation."

Mink and his staff pitched the idea to the commissioners during talks on the 2009 budget. Mink offered to pay half of the roughly $700,000 it would take to fund the 10 percent match, and the county would pay the other half. The commissioners agreed.

"I can understand why everybody else in the county would be pissed off," Mink said. "But I don't know their attrition rate."

Mink added that it is expensive to put deputies through the academy, have them gain certifications, get them on the street for a couple of years, and watch them get hired away by another agency.

"If they turn around and leave, we're losing all that money," Mink said. "We've invested so much. Do we want to lose that in two to three years?"

County Administrator Jim Moore said it's just a "good business decision."

"That's just an indicator of the labor market," Moore said. "It's not at all unusual for municipalities and cities to have richer benefits for police and fire personnel."

Moore said the county has to offer competitive pay for every position, and that salaries are usually higher for law enforcement. He also said that law enforcement is a top priority for taxpayers.

"We look at the priorities of citizens," Moore said. "Almost exclusively, not just in Jefferson County but across the nation, public safety is high on the priority list of services citizens expect. If we need to do something different for public safety employees to remain competitive, that's what we need to do."

Kathy Hartman, chair of the Jeffco commissioners, agreed.

"The reality we deal with is that all of our employees exist in a market, and we have to recruit employees from other organizations, and we're competing with other governments for employees," Hartman said. "Police have better retirement benefits than everybody else everywhere."

She cited discrepancies at several other metro-area municipalities' between law enforcement and civilian employees. In Broomfield, civilian employees are offered a 6 percent match, while police are offered 10 percent. In Golden, civilians get a 5 percent match and police get 12 percent. In Littleton, civilian employees get a 4 percent match, and police get 10 percent.

Hartman said it's a fairly simple decision.

"I'd really like to have really generous benefits for all our employees," Hartman said. "I'm also a steward of taxpayer money, and taxpayers get grumpy when we pay employees much better than other entities pay similar employees."

One county worker who didn't want her name used said a lot of employees are upset about the decision.

"It's Jeffco's version of the auto bailout," the woman said. She said the attrition rate at the sheriff's office will stay the same even with the increased match, so it's pointless to fund their match and not everybody else's. She added that most employees would rather have the money on their paychecks instead of in a retirement account anyway, so the justification from county leaders doesn't make sense.

"I understand her feelings," Hartman said. "I find it frustrating that we can't offer this level of benefits for everyone, but I also know the economic realities that we are looking at, and the fact that most other governments and most other private entities don't provide that higher level of benefits to non-police officers."

Todd Leopold, Jeffco's administrative services director, said it could cost $3.4 million if the county offered the 10 percent match to every employee.

"In this economy, employees are wanting to put money in to pay current bills," Leopold said. He estimated that 85 percent of county employees might go for the full match, though.

Commissioner Jim Congrove, who was a Denver Police officer for many years, said the increased retirement match for deputies was "the only thing on the budget that was good."

He criticized the other commissioners for cutting the retirement match for non-law-enforcement employees in January, and then approving large pay increases for top-level employees. He also bemoaned the 9 percent pay increase that was just approved for Jeffco District Attorney Scott Storey.

The deputies can go through training and be certified in Jeffco, and then move on to another agency that doesn't have to invest in education, Congrove said.

"They can put applications in anywhere else," Congrove said. "And we're going to lose people after taxpayers in Jefferson County spent money to train people and get them certified. We lose them to other departments because our benefits (stink)."

Contact AJ Vicens at aj@evergreenco.com, and check www.columbinecourier.com for updates and breaking news.