SEABROOK — Laws aimed at curbing union benefits in Ohio and Wisconsin have nothing on what happened at the New Hampshire Statehouse last week.
Amidst howls from thousands of public employees and other demonstrators, both the N.H. House and Senate passed bills, including budget bills, that include language that would eliminate public employee unions' historic collective bargaining powers and weaken unions across the board.
But beyond that, both houses passed differing bills that, if they become law, could change the state's public employee pension system in ways that some say could cause 40 percent of Seabrook's most experienced emergency responders to retire before the reforms take effect, including nearly the entire leadership teams of both the fire and police departments.
Among many changes on the table are: making employes pay more into the retirement fund, work longer before they retire, eliminating paying retirees for medical benefits and cost-of-living raises, averaging salaries from five instead of three years to determine the pension base and not allowing detail pay or the value of unused sick/annual leave to be included in pension calculations.
The bills are supported by legislators and citizens who say the retirement system is too liberal, critically underfunded and needs reform to save taxpayers, cities and towns money.
But members of Seabrook's police and firefighters unions say they've worked their whole careers believing the promises the state made to them, and to change the playing field now is flatly unfair. They say Republican and Tea Party legislators are riding the anti-union tide sweeping the nation, and have been envious of pension benefits for decades.
"This is coming from people who have been wanting to scratch this itch for years," said Jeff Brown, Seabrook's fire chief and a lawyer. "There is no financial crisis that can't be fixed by means other than changes in these bills. This is a paper crisis of their own making. Those reform bills aren't going to save cities and towns anything."
What is true, Brown said, is that if either pension reform bill is swept into law, 10 out of 22 Seabrook firefighters — all qualified EMTs as well — will most likely retire before the new changes go into effect. Among the 10 are Brown, Deputy Chief Everett Strangman, and all the department's captains — Stan Saracy, Tuggie Hewlett, Charlie Felch and Clay Fowler.
In the Police Department, Chief Patrick Manthorn said out of 27 officers, at least 10 qualify to retire, and most are the department's leaders: Manthorn, Deputy Chief Lee Bitomske, Lt. Michael Gallagher and three of the five sergeants — Mark Preston, Bob Granlund and Scott Allen.
"How are you going to replace that kind of experience if they retire?" Manthorn asked. "What pool are you going to draw from that has officers with the experience you're losing?"
"And that's just in Seabrook," Brown said. "I estimate every city and town in the state will lose about 40 percent of their emergency responders. You'll lose just about every fire chief in the state. Almost all fire chiefs have 20 years of experience and are or will be 45 by July 1, 2016 (the bills' reforms implementation date)."
The drain would not only be in manpower, according to Brown and Seabrook police Sgt. Mark Preston. According to the town's contract with their unions, when employees leave they can cash all or part of unused sick and annual leave. For some, that's hundreds of hours of pay, equalling tens of thousands of dollars each.
"I figure with the people retiring here, it could cost Seabrook about $1 million," Brown said. "And the worst part is they'll all probably retire on the same day."
With so many employees retiring, most with high salaries, said Preston, who himself spent two terms as a state representative, the effect on the retirement system could be critical.
"Look what would happen in Seabrook, and Seabrook is just one small town," Preston said. "Think about what happens when all the senior people in the big cities, like Manchester or the state police, retire. With all those people retiring, all that money being paid out of the system at the same time, I don't know if the fund could withstand that high a financial impact."
Town Manager Barry Brenner hasn't yet calculated what pension reform could cost or save taxpayers if the bills become law. With two bills in the middle of the legislative process, he said, anything can happen.
But one issue concerning the pension system does worry Brenner. In Gov. John Lynch's version of the budget, the state will no longer contribute anything to the pension fund, unlike the past when it covered from 25 to 35 percent. The entire burden of funding the system could end up being borne by communities and employees.
The two pension reform bills — sponsored by two Republicans, state Sen. Jeb Bradley and state Rep. Neal Kirk — passed their respective houses on March 30, with votes pretty much along party lines in the Republican-controlled houses. The two bills will now pass over to the opposite house for debate.
It would not be uncommon for a conference committee to be formed to deal with the differences, combining the bills into one for final presentation and votes by both houses. If approved, the result goes to the governor. He can sign or veto, with two-thirds vote of each house required to override a veto.
Brown, a staunch Republican and also a former New Hampshire state representative, said although the bills differ, the combined changes they could put into effect would force senior officers to retire to protect themselves.
"I have men already filling out their retirement papers," Brown said. "They're making them effective June 1, 2011, because they don't trust (the legislators) in Concord not to change the 2016 deadline date."
Preston, a life-long Democrat, is a 30-year veteran of the force and said those who qualify to retire under the old system would have to retire.
"I never thought of retiring before this," Preston said. "I don't feel old enough to retire. But since 1980, I've contributed 9.3 percent of every dollar I've earned to the retirement fund. We all have, police and firefighters."
To retire under the current system, police or firefighters must be at least 45 years old and have 20 years of service, Manthorn said, but that offers a 50 percent pension. Every year of service over 20 years increased the percentage, he said, with retirement at 100 percent requiring 40 years of service.
To calculate what their pension-based salary, would be, Brown said, currently the highest three years of salary are averaged together, with overtime and detail pay included. Detail pay is more common for police than fire, Brown said, and relates to money officers received for doing traffic details for road improvements, usually paid by private contractors. But when earned, officers still send 9.3 percent of it to the pension fund.
In addition, Preston said, when calculating pensions, the worth of unused accrued sick and annual leave is included. Preston, for example, has amassed about $22,000 worth of unused sick and vacation pay.
Brown said not allowing unused leave to be included in pension calculations would backfire on cities and towns.
"The option is for employees to use every hour of sick and vacation time they accrue every year," he said. "Then the town would have to pay time and a half for overtime to the other employees to cover their shifts. It would cost the town more."
"If people want us to work longer before we retire, tell us how long you want us to work," Brown said. "You want us to work until we're 65 or older? That's fine, but do people really want 70-year-old police officers or firefighters showing up at their doors in emergencies?"