Georgia County Commissioners Eye Cutting Firefighter Retirement Age

Changing the age to 55 in Whitfield County

Charles Oliver, The Daily Citizen, Dalton, Ga.

(TNS)

Whitfield County firefighters work a 24-hour shift every three days.

“When you look at it from the perspective of their annual work hours, a firefighter works 2,756 hours a year,” Whitfield County Fire Chief Edward O’Brien told members of the Board of Commissioners at their work session on Monday.

O’Brien said someone who works a typical 40-hour week works 2,080 hours a year.

“From a firefighter’s perspective, the way we look at it is is that every three years we actually work an additional year,” he said.

During the work session, commissioners looked at the possibility of changing the terms of retirement for firefighters and sheriff’s deputies to allow them to retire at age 55 with 25 years of employment with the county. They can currently retire at age 60 with 25 years of employment with the county or at 65 if they have fewer than 25 years.

Commissioners closed the county’s pension plan to new employees in February 2016. Employees hired after that are covered by a defined contribution plan similar to a 401(k). According to data provided by the county, some 53 firefighters and 96 deputies are covered by the pension plan. During the next 12 months, six individuals will qualify at the sheriff’s office to retire at 55 with 25 years of service and five individuals will qualify at the fire department.

“One of the main reasons for doing this is that the jobs are so physically demanding that past 55 it’s kind of hard to do the job,” said board Chairman Lynn Laughter. “I know there’s exceptions to that.”

O’Brien and sheriff’s office Maj. John Gibson spoke about the physical demands of working in fire protection and law enforcement.

“We’ve got a few who are 60, 61, but they are in excellent shape, and we don’t want to force anyone out,” said O’Brien.

But he said that by the time they are in their 50s most firefighters have “bad knees, bad shoulders, bad backs.”

“When we get older, over 55, and I include myself, we don’t bounce back from injuries as quickly as the other guys do,” he said.

Commissioner Harold Brooker asked if changing the age for retirement would force anyone out. O’Brien said it would not, but it would provide an option to those who would qualify for retirement earlier.

Gibson said injuries “come with the territory” in law enforcement, and it isn’t uncommon for law enforcement officers in their 50s to have had surgery on their knees or shoulders or back. He agreed with O’Brien that it’s harder for older people to bounce back from injuries.

Laughter said firefighters have asked her about reducing the retirement age since she joined the commission eight years ago.

“I thought it would be way too expensive,” she said. “But it turns out it won’t be as expensive as we thought.”

The pension plan’s actuary said the change would require the county to add another $87,000 a year to its pension payments, though $94,000 would be recommended. The county paid the recommended amount this year, $1.9 million.

Laughter said one cost that is difficult to estimate is the cost of retiree insurance. For employees covered by the pension plan hired before 2009, the county keeps them on its health insurance until they turn 65 and qualify for Medicare, though the retiree pays a portion of the cost.

About 68 employees in the sheriff’s office would have the option of taking the retiree health insurance when they retire. About 42 firefighters would have that option.

“The county is self-insured,” Laughter said, adding that if a retiree has a serious heath issue the county would bear that cost.

Like Whitfield County, both the city of Dalton and Murray County have closed their pension plans but still have employees covered by them.

Dalton closed its pension plan in July 2002. Employees hired before the pension plan was closed can retire with a full pension at age 65 and five years of service or age 55 and 25 years of service.

Murray County closed its pension plan in November 2013.

“Retirees can draw a pension after 15 years of employment and are at least 62 years old, or after 25 years of employment regardless of age,” said Murray County Manager/Financial Officer Tommy Parker. “The monthly benefit is calculated at retirement based on average annual income and the number of years employed.”

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