NewburyportNews.com, Newburyport, MA

Local News

April 4, 2011

Reforms could lead to exodus

State considers major changes to public employees pension system

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."

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