Would Phoenix’s Proposition 487 Hurt Public Safety Workers?

In exactly one week, Phoenix voters will determine the fate of Proposition 487 – the controversial ballot measure that would, among other things, end the city’s defined-benefit plan for all new hires and shift them into a 401(k)-style plan.

The measure excludes public safety workers, so nothing would change for police and firefighters. Or would it?

In recent weeks, a fiery debate has emerged over whether Prop 487 would actually harm the retirement security of the city’s public safety workers.

Dustin Gardiner at the Arizona Republic writes:

Hundreds of firefighters and police officers chant “No on 487!” outside an upscale Biltmore office tower, rallying against a ballot initiative they contend will gut their most critical benefits.

They say the measure…would jeopardize their retirement security and death and disability benefits.

That dire situation they portrayed at the protest earlier this month — suggesting Prop. 487 will eviscerate the pensions of officers and firefighters and leave families of fallen first responders without benefits — is improbable given that state law prohibits it.

Nevertheless, the hotly disputed claim has become the dominant argument in the final stretches of the campaign over the measure, which would close Phoenix’s employee-pension ­system for new hires and replace it with a 401(k)-type plan. The initiative is on the Nov. 4 ballot for city voters.

[…]

“Given that police officers and firefighters don’t receive Social Security and judges are apt to make unpredictable rulings, we refuse to take such risks with the public safety of our community,” leaders of the city’s police and fire unions wrote in a joint letter this week.

The Arizona Republic editorial board published a piece on Monday calling the arguments of public safety unions “thin”:

Prop. 487, which applies only to the Phoenix-run retirement system for non-public-safety employees, expressly excludes police and fire pensions. State law requires cities to contribute to the statewide public-safety pension system. The Arizona Constitution explicitly protects personnel already enrolled. Legal precedent clearly is on the side of public safety.

Even attorneys opposing Prop. 487 acknowledge that their arguments are thin. So why the fierce opposition?

Part of the explanation must be set at the feet of the Phoenix City Council, a majority of which opposes the proposition. The council created ballot language that disingenuously depicts the proposition taking action that is constitutionally forbidden.

The council majority and staff have made it clear which side they favor. It isn’t the side of the city’s taxpayers, who must bear the rapidly increasing expense of the city’s grossly underfunded pension plans.

But, largely, the anti-Prop. 487 campaign appears to be a statement by the city’s public-safety unions, which will adamantly oppose any effort to change any public-employee retirement system that promises to lessen the financial burden on the city’s taxpayers.

Even to the point of rising up against a ballot measure that will in no way affect their benefits.

But union leaders call the measure “poorly written” and maintain that the ambiguity of the measure doesn’t bode well for public safety workers. From a column in the Arizona Republic authored by the presidents of three Arizona public safety unions:

Prop. 487 will impact Phoenix police officers and firefighters. The only question is: Exactly how much?

Because of this measure’s contradictory language and because, according to the city’s analyses, Prop. 487 has the potential to make it illegal for the city to contribute to the public-safety retirement system, our groups oppose this ballot measure. Simply put: It is the wrong kind of reform.

Inevitably, Prop. 487 will end up in court for a years-long legal fight. Our opponents and The Arizona Republic editorial board have discounted that risk — and the looming massive legal bills.

However, given that police officers and firefighters don’t receive Social Security and judges are apt to make unpredictable rulings, we refuse to take such risks with the public safety of our community. We hope Phoenix residents will refuse, as well.

Read the entire column from the union leaders here.

You can read the Arizona Republic’s editorial board piece here.

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