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State, Local Police Struggle To Recruit, As Pension Reform Prompts Retirements

LMPD chief Steve Conrad
LMPD chief Steve Conrad

As state legislators debate what changes will fix Kentucky’s debilitated pension system, state and local police are scrambling to recruit officers.

Louisville Police Chief Steve Conrad said nearly 100 officers left LMPD this year. Sixty-three of those, he said, are officers who retired because of Kentucky's looming pension reform, prompting him to try to recruit more officers.

“I’m having to manage with what I have … all told, we’ve had 98 people leave already and we’ve got seven more months of this fiscal year to deal with,” Conrad said at his Dec. 6 year-end address to a Metro Council committee. “What is so frustrating is we’ve lost a number of great police officers to fear over the retirement, and nothing has happened yet.”

The plan proposed by Kentucky Gov. Matt Bevin includes a mandate for officers (and all state employees) to contribute 3 percent of their pay toward a retirement health program, as well as a suspension of pension benefits for retirees who return to public service full-time.

Worries About Retirement

Under the current system, officers can boost their pension benefits by retiring after working large amounts of overtime. Republican state Rep. Jerry Miller said pension reforms will limit that, as well as limiting how much sick and overtime hours hazardous-duty workers can count towards their retirement benefits.

“It’s actuarially unsound the way it’s been done in the past,” Miller said. “I don’t want to imply that anyone is doing anything wrong … they’re just taking advantage of the system in the way that it’s customarily been done.”

Police and other hazardous-duty employees can also currently use sick leave and comp time they've saved up to boost their pension benefits or help them retire early.

Under Bevin's proposal, sick leave would be capped as of July 1, 2018. Workers would also no longer be able to use accrued sick time to determine retirement eligibility for retirements after July 1, 2018. Workers hired after 2008 already aren't allowed to use comp time to boost their time for retirement compensation.

Bevin's plan would also suspend retirees' pension benefits if they ever return to work full-time in state government. But Miller said a new version of the plan would scale back that provision, allowing hazardous duty retirees who return to the same job to keep their pension benefits, though they would have to stop working for a month after retiring.

“They can cash out if they want to cash out, they can lay out for a month and then boom, they can come right back and continue to work,” Miller said. “We want to make sure that we’re not discouraging people from retiring and coming back to work if that’s what they want to do.”

Miller said after returning, the retirement and rehiring cannot be pre-arranged and LMPD must continue paying into the retirement system.

State and Local Applications Declining

LMPD Training Director Major Bridget Thomerson said a stable and consistent pension system may attract applicants, but it might not affect LMPD recruitment in the long run because many younger applicants don’t worry about pensions.

Brad Arterburn commands Kentucky State Police’s recruitment branch. He’s not sure whether the specter of pension reform scares away officers and applicants. But he said his department has reformed its hiring process to patch years of dwindling application numbers.

“In my recruitment trips around the state and everywhere I’ve been, very few people talk about the pay or the retirement,” Arterburn said. “This is not diluting what a trooper is by any means … we’re just letting more people try to become troopers.”

Arterburn said KSP used to receive thousands of applications yearly. Now they get half that and struggle for quality applicants. KSP retooled their hiring process this year, allowing those who have a high school diploma, or GED, and three years of full-time work experience to apply. He said the training and hiring process will remain rigorous, maintaining the quality of troopers hired.

Miller said he expects the hazardous duty provision will pass as part of overall pension reforms. Legislators are expected to discuss the reforms and proposals when the General Assembly reconvenes — either in a special session later this year or the regular session that begins in January.

Kyeland Jackson is an Associate Producer for WFPL News.