By Matt Young, West Virginia Press Association
BERKELEY SPRINGS, W.Va. – The legislature’s Joint Standing Committee on Pensions and Retirement met on Tuesday during the last day of the November interim session. The only business before the committee was the proposal to transfer control of service regarding police and firefighters from the Public Employees Retirement System (PERS) to the Municipal Police Officers and Firefighters Retirement System (MPFRS).
The state legislature held the November interim meeting at Cacapon Resort State Park in the eastern panhandle.
City of Charles Town Mayor Robert Trainer was the first to speak before the committee, saying, “I’m here to talk about the pension program and the shortcomings that are impacting our police departments.”
According to Trainer, there is “misalignment with the PERS system,” and the MPFRS is, “a much better fit for municipal police departments.”
“The reason that we were not able to join that is because we didn’t have a qualified pension plan,” Trainer added. “We were stuck in the PERS system.”
Trainer explained how member-contributions based on the “tier” system used by PERS are on average two-to-three percent higher than what contributions would cost under the MPFRS program. Furthermore, had Charles Town been utilizing MPFRS since 2015, the savings to the city would have been $112,000 based upon matching contributions.
“What we’re looking for from this committee is some relief for our police department,” Trainer said. “Right now I’m down four people, and I can’t keep people. They look around – they see there’s a better retirement system at the Sheriff’s Department or the State Police, and they move on to another agency.”
“I think the Municipal Police Officers and Firefighters Pension Plan would probably be the easiest answer,” Trainer concluded.
Next to the podium was City of Charles Town Councilmember Kevin Tester, who told the committee, “If we do not stop the bleeding of not being able to backfill these open positions (law enforcement officers, various emergency service providers), what will eventually happen is we will have to disband our own police agency. When this happens, this will come back to you in one way or another. Someone still has to police these municipalities. One way or another, it is going to cost our state money.”
“I strongly ask that you at least consider resolution, in some way, to get these agencies into the correct retirement plan, so they can work a reasonable amount of time and retire,” Tester concluded. “My son is a police officer, and I don’t really want to see him on the streets when he’s 60, running down criminals.”
Lance Morrison, chief of the Ravenswood Police Department, echoed the sentiments of both Tester and Trainer, saying, “I made this trip today out of desperation to save the law enforcement agency in our community.”
“We’re tending to hire out of desperation,” Morrison said. “At a time when law enforcement is under such scrutiny, that’s a dangerous endeavor. The number of shootouts we’ve been in, the number of needles we have to handle – the number of fentanyl we have to endure. How much blood does an officer have to step through in his career to be enough? How much death does a policeman have to take? How many divorces can he endure?”
Morrison went on to describe an incident that occurred early in his career which resulted in his being left with a permanent back injury, saying, “I couldn’t walk, I couldn’t stand and my wife had to dress me.”
“I’m 43,” Morrison added. “There’s no way I could do this until I was 62-years-old. As it is, I have concerns over my age now.”
In response to a question from Del. Erikka Storch, R-Ohio, Morrison suggested that employees who are moved from PERS to MPFRS be required to contribute for a minimum of three-years before being eligible for retirement.
“I understand the thought process of, ‘Well, this guys been in the [PERS] system for years and as soon as we move him over, he’s eligible to retire,’” Morrison said. “That’s a problem. But I believe every problem has a solution.”
The Joint Standing Committee on Pensions and Retirement will reconvene during next month’s interim session scheduled for Dec. 5-6.