Facing a retention crisis, Alaska Legislature considers a more generous first responder retirement scheme

Facing a retention crisis, the Alaska Legislature is considering a bill that would implement a more generous retirement scheme for first responders.
Published: Feb. 3, 2022 at 7:20 PM AKST
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JUNEAU, Alaska (KTUU) - Facing a retention crisis, the Alaska Legislature is considering a bill that would implement a more generous retirement scheme for Alaska State Troopers, police officers, firefighters and correctional officers.

Dozens of first responders have testified that the current system is inadequate and that it leads to experienced officers leaving for the Lower 48 after being trained in Alaska.

Fairbanks Fire Chief Tod Chambers said 50% of the department’s current employees have been there for less than three years. A majority of outgoing firefighters say that a lack of a defined benefits scheme contributes to why they’re leaving.

“This is a very real issue of life, safety and property protection,” Chambers said.

Randy McLellan, president of the Alaska Correctional Officers Association, echoed those concerns. He said the Alaska Department of Corrections has “a significant staffing crisis” and saw record turnover in 2021 when 152 of 940 correctional officers left their jobs.

Older correctional officers are part of a now-defunct retirement scheme that ended in 2006. McLellan said those officers can work in Alaska and afford to retire, but after getting trained, the younger officers leave, leading to big gaps in experience.

“Every time the DOC loses an experienced officer, we’re forced to backfill that position with an inexperienced recruit,” he said.

Former heads of the Anchorage Police Department and Anchorage Fire Department have urged for the Legislature to act, saying highly-trained officers are leaving Alaska. Commissioner James Cockrell of the Alaska Department of Public Safety said in December that Alaska State Troopers deserve to have a defined benefits retirement scheme.

“When you’re raising a family — you’re getting spit on, you’re wrestling people — there has to be a reward at the end of your career,” he said.

Again and again in public testimony, first responders wrote how tough their jobs are on their bodies. A concern raised is what that means for firefighters who may have to work into their old age.

“Can you imagine a 58-year-old carrying someone down a flight of stairs or out of a fire?” said Jeff Jones, a firefighter from Ketchikan. “I’m not saying it can’t be done or won’t be attempted, but it puts me, the public and my coworkers at more risk.”

Paul Miranda, president of the Alaska Professional Firefighters Association, said there is a high demand for first responders across the United States and Alaska is suffering because of its current benefits system.

“We’re at a clear disadvantage when compared to what other states are offering for their retirement benefits,” he said.

Another concern is the cost to the state of training first responders and watching them leave Alaska. The Alaska Department of Public Safety released a report in 2017 showing that it costs $190,000 to train and fully certify a trooper. The report noted the lack of a defined benefits retirement scheme in Alaska was leading to attrition and retention problems for the department.

The House of Representatives passed House Bill 55 onto the Senate last year on a 25-5 vote. It would implement a “hybrid” defined benefits plan at a cost to the state of around $6 million per year.

Under the plan, first responders could start receiving benefits when they’re 55 years old after 20 years of service, but health benefits would remain as a defined contribution.

Rep. Andy Josephson, D-Anchorage, is carrying the bill and presented it before the Senate Labor and Commerce Committee on Monday. He said it would pay first responders around 45% of their highest salary when they retire compared to the current model, which is closer to 30%.

“And they can’t retire on that,” Josephson said.

The current system, which is similar to a 401(k) plan, has no defined benefits. First responders can also take their accrued pensions and leave Alaska after working in-state for five years.

Police and fire departments across Alaska report that many officers are doing just that. Cory Luck was a firefighter and paramedic in Juneau, and faced the uncertainty of Alaska’s retirement system.

“That’s ultimately what led me to leave the state of Alaska,” he said to the Senate committee from Washington State.

Alaska is one of two states without a defined benefits retirement system for its public safety officers. The state ended its defined benefits scheme in 2006 after it was found to be underfunded, contributing to an unfunded liability worth billions of dollars.

“How can you make us absolutely certain that we won’t run into unfunded liabilities like we’re paying for now?” Sen. Josh Revak, R-Anchorage, asked Josephson on Monday, about the new bill.

The state’s actuary studied a previous version of the bill in 2020 and suggested the new system would be solvent. Another analysis could be requested if the bill moves to the Senate Finance Committee, an aide to Josephson said.

Implementing a new retirement scheme for first responders has long been before the Legislature. There are two other bills covering a broader swath of public sector employees. Neither have passed the House or Senate.

Josephson said it was important HB55 passed the House last year and that it faced a good shot of making it to the Senate floor for a final vote this year.

“We have real confidence that the politics is there and the need is there,” he said.

Gov. Mike Dunleavy launched the People First Initiative to address public safety. A new retirement scheme for first responders was not introduced as part of that plan. Jeff Turner, a spokesperson for the governor’s office, said Dunleavy does not comment on pending legislation until it’s on his desk for his consideration.

On Wednesday, Cockrell said he personally supported defined benefits but that it was up to the Legislature if it wants to pass a new scheme. He highlighted that the Alaska State Trooper Academy has a full class in February, showing how the department can attract new recruits.

“We’ve got a lot of momentum as a department, probably more momentum than I’ve seen in a long time,” he added.

According to law enforcement officers across Alaska, the challenge will be keeping them here.

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