The Rational Voice of Pension Reform
Granted, it’s a rarity … but every so often a rational voice breaks through all the craziness and name-calling coming from political campaigns. And when it does, it resonates with people and helps restore our faith in the political process.
Right now, that voice belongs to Bryan Jeffries.
Jeffries isn’t a political candidate making wild promises he can’t keep. Nor is he one of the egomaniacs engaged in public posturing to remain in political office. Jeffries is a firefighter who works for the City of Mesa. He’s also President of the Professional Fire Fighters of Arizona, the organization that represents more than 6,500 firefighters who serve communities all around the state.
What Jeffries is suggesting to help repair the state’s broken pension system is striking a responsive cord with anyone who wants to fix the system the right way. In other words …
Jeffries likes to begin by explaining: “Pensions are not ideological issues, they’re math issues.” Which is a logical place to start.
However, grandstanding politicians are fond of using pension issues to gain ideological leverage with voters – especially the politically conservative ones. That’s when things typically go from bad to worse, because one of two things usually happens: politicians reach a stalemate, so nothing gets done, or the politicos simply make a mess of it. Senate Bill 1609 comes to mind -- the State Senate’s effort to fix the Public Safety Personnel Retirement System (PSPRS) three years ago that turned out to be ineffectual once the courts declared significant features of the legislation unconstitutional.
Doing The Right Thing
Jeffries, a Fire Captain for the Mesa Fire Department, wants Arizona firefighters to take the lead in making the PSPRS sustainable – particularly for future generations. Unless that happens, the pension fund will surely collapse, which would leave public safety personnel high and dry.
Last week Jeffries told the New York Times that firefighters fear
“something dramatic is going to happen, and they’ll wake up and they’ll have nothing.” Most public safety personnel, including police officers and firefighters, do not collect Social Security, so the majority of their retirement income comes from the PSPRS.
Saving the pension system will be easier said than done. But those who know Bryan Jeffries say he and firefighters are up to the challenge.
In order to avoid repeating history by having the courts reject changes in the pension system as unconstitutional, it will require an actual change to the State Constitution. So Jeffries wants to take the pension issue to Arizona voters in a two-step process. The approval of a constitutional amendment would enable a companion initiative, once approved by voters, to make the necessary changes to fix the PSPRS.
Jeffries isn’t naïve and firefighters aren’t novices in the political arena. They know that repairing the pension system will be an ambitious undertaking that will take a lot of money and manpower. But in the long-run it will be worth it.
Jeffries and firefighters’ efforts aren’t only focused on rescuing the retirement fund for their members. If successful, their campaign will be a lifeline to cities drowning in red ink brought on by a pension system that’s miserably underfunded and, some say, woefully mismanaged. Employers can’t afford to continue picking up the slack by pouring funding into the PSPRS to keep it afloat.
Biting The Bullet
Continuing to operate under the current broken public safety pension system will force cities like Phoenix to raise taxes, cut services or maybe both to make ends meet. According to Jeffries, those aren’t options.
However, not confronting the Phoenix pension issue realistically causes all kinds of problems and opens the door for agents of dark money like the Free Enterprise Club to persuade voters to change the system the wrong way. And that, like so often mentioned on these pages, gives opportunists like Councilman Sal DiCiccio the ability to make political hay with the pension issue.
Of course DiCiccio exploits the most extreme examples of pension benefits paid to a select number of former Phoenix city employees. But those are the exceptions and not the rule. For instance, the average pension for public safety retirees is $52,600 a year, verified by the PSPRS administrator. That doesn’t include the annual 4% cost-of-living (COLA) increases.
To prevent the PSPRS from imploding, Jeffries is proposing things like increasing the number of years public safety employees serve before becoming eligible to collect their pension, increasing an employee’s contribution to the fund and radically reducing COLA increases. Those are the types of things Jeffries says should be done to return the pension system to being fully funded over time.
But time is of the essence.
Brian Jeffries knows that. So do Arizona firefighters. They also know how important it is to fix the Public Safety Personnel Retirement System the right way.
SIDEBAR: “A Firefighter’s Firefighter”
Ask almost anyone in fire and emergency services and they will all tell you the same thing: “Bryan Jeffries is a firefighter’s firefighter.”
As President of the Mesa Fire Fighters Association, Local 2260, Jeffries had a principal role in what firefighters around the Valley believe has helped make the Mesa Fire Department one of the most respected in the state. In fact some say MFD is a “model fire department.”
Jeffries, a 20-year firefighter, is a consensus builder.
When the economic downturn hit, Jeffries worked closely with former Mayor Scott Smith and the City Council on salary cuts for firefighters. Jeffries navigated a political minefield in successfully creating cooperation between city leaders and rank and file firefighters. No one likes the idea of their wages being cut, and firefighters were no different. Jeffries served as liaison between the politicians and his members to reach an accord on the cuts.
Jeffries also played a pivotal part in identifying a new staffing model for MFD, instituting a “meet and agree” labor policy with the city’s management and initiating a “community medicine” program run by the fire department.
During a short stint on the Phoenix City Council following his appointment to fill the District 2 seat of Peggy Neely, Jeffries, a resident of northeast Phoenix, was credited with resolving the Sonoran Boulevard (aka “Road To Nowhere”) controversy. He worked to mediate a settlement between Westcor developers and neighborhoods. Jeffries’ success in striking a compromise earned him the admiration of all the stakeholders.
Many people both inside and outside the fire and emergency services industry believe Bryan Jeffries is the perfect person to be promoting pension reform. He’s well liked, respected and, most importantly, trusted.
In a recent newsletter to Arizona firefighters, Jeffries wrote: “While so much surrounding this issue is fuzzy, one point is clear: The funding level of PSPRS is not good. If no changes are made, it will be decades before the funding levels return to sustainable levels – if they return. In the meantime, the system will grow even more expensive for our employers and for taxpayers. That will lead to service cuts by our employers and make getting raises nearly impossible for current employees.”
Above all else, Jeffries is politically pragmatic.