A thankless job

Low pay, lousy pension force Atlanta cops to quit

On a recent evening, the story goes, a recruitment officer from the DeKalb County Police Department asked to join Atlanta cops in their roll call at the Zone 2 station off Sidney Marcus Boulevard.
The reason? He wanted to give them jobs.
An officer shooed away the DeKalb recruiter, but the story illustrates a point: Outside agencies think Atlanta cops can be lured away with promises of a better job in another jurisdiction.
But the city now has a chance to do something about it. Atlanta police say an improvement in their substandard pension program will help close a back door through which Atlanta officers are leaving and recruiters — from both the public and private sector — are slipping in to nab experienced cops.
The problem is that city leaders don't know where that money will come from. The budget is tight, and past money mismanagement may have made it more difficult than ever for the city to meet police requests now.
Currently, the city is operating with about 1,400 officers, though the budget provides for 1,800 men in blue. And even though Mayor Bill Campbell pledged to put 2,000 police officers on the street by this year, the ranks have actually shrunk by about 200 members since 1992.
So far this year, the police department has hired 103 new cops, but another 98 have quit, according to Chip Warren, the national vice president of the International Brotherhood of Police Officers.
Atlanta police are now saying it's the pension and not just the pay that's making it difficult for the department to hire and retain cops. Under the current setup, a city officer can expect a 2 percent return toward his retirement for every year served. That means if he retires after 20 years, the officer can expect to make 40 percent of his highest salary, provided he was earning at that level for at least three years, says senior officer Richard Straut, the senior vice president of the Atlanta chapter of the Police Benevolent Association of Georgia.
That 2 percent is the lowest rate in Georgia, lower even than the rate for MARTA employees, says Atlanta Police Maj. John Prince II, the legislative liaison for Chief Beverly Harvard's office.
DeKalb County, for example, currently offers its officers a 2.75 percent pension benefit per year of service, and officers there contribute only one-half of 1 percent of their paychecks into the system. But while Atlanta and DeKalb salaries are similar, Atlanta officers contribute a mandatory 7 percent of their paychecks, and there is a 6 percent penalty for every year an officer retires before age 55.
So even though Atlanta advertises a $30,783 starting salary for trained police officers, the officer is down to about $28,600 after the mandatory contribution. And that's before taxes. A cop earning the top pay of $45,757 actually gets $42,554 before taxes.
Prince gets embarrassed when he talks to police officers from other jurisdictions. "They can sit there and gloat and say, 'We may not be where we need to be, but at least we're better off than Atlanta,'" he says.
Sgt. Tonya Dedrick with DeKalb Police Department's Background and Recruiting section says her office does not directly target Atlanta cops, but the two agencies are in a competitive market. If an officer has even an "inkling" of a better life down the road, the county's benefits package sells itself, she says. DeKalb recently opened up 50 new positions and has about 160 open slots in the department.
The pay and pension problems are one reason the city isn't able to attract enough police, which in turn extends the problem from economics to safety. And police argue that understaffing is creating dangerous situations for cops on the street.
"The public safety of the city is what is at stake here," Prince says. He couldn't give a specific example, but he says the problem should be self-evident. "On its face, if there are less people to do a specific job ... the ability to deliver services is handicapped," Prince says.
Straut argues that Atlanta's growing commercial and residential tax base is sufficient to fund an improvement in the pension system.
Police want an increase to 4 percent per year of service from the current 2 percent level. Under that system, a cop could retire after 25 years on the force and make the same money he was making before retirement.
The Dallas, Texas police department operates under the 4 percent system. Cobb, Clayton and Fulton counties offer a 2.5 percent return for every year an officer serves.
Improving pensions alone won't lick the whole problem of recruitment and retention, but "it will be the largest factor in solving it," Straut maintains.
The cops have been putting a full-court press on the council members and Mayor Bill Campbell to convince them to enhance the benefits. But the pension requests are complicated by a number of things.
One, the city operates with an unfunded liability in the pension system that totals about $35.4 million. By law, that figure must be reduced to zero by 2018, to make the pension system fully funded, said Finance Committee Chairman Lee Morris. So in addition to providing more than 70 percent of the money currently going into the pension fund — cops contribute about 25 percent — the city must also pay down the unfunded portion.
Of course, if the city had more cops, more money would be funneled into the pension system, thereby reducing the city's role, says police Capt. Louis Arcangeli, the trustee of the pension fund.
Potentially adding to the retirement system problems is the case of a former city pension fund manager who lost $18 million of city money, according to federal prosecutors. Theresa Stanford and Raymond McClendon, an investment banker, are scheduled to be sentenced Jan. 22 on more than 20 counts each of mail fraud in connection with their roles in an investment scandal spanning the years 1992-94, says U.S. Attorney's Office spokesman Patrick Crosby.
Among other activities, they set up a system by which city investment money and other funds were churned through multiple, short-term investments that yielded poor returns.
Whether or not Stanford and McClendon damaged the pension fund is not known, but some of the money involved did come from the fund, and some experts believe the pair did harm its health, Morris says. Arcangeli, a frequent critic of police brass on a variety of issues, has requested that the United States Probation Office, which is figuring out how much money Stanford and McClendon should owe the city, calculate how much of that restitution should go to the pension fund.
Finally, council members have also expressed concern that if police receive the pension benefit increase, the city's firefighters and corrections officers will be next in line. Indeed, Kelen Evans, vice president of Metro Atlanta Professional Fire Fighters Council, Local 134, said Atlanta firefighters want to be bumped up to 4 percent, too. They're at the same retirement rate as the cops.
Council members will begin actively working with the pension issue as part of its budget process this fall.
As if Atlanta cops don't get too little in pay and retirement already, they received a big box of holiday nothing from the city last week when they were informed that $2 million earmarked for APD bonuses has already been spent.
To remedy the problem, the City Council passed an ordinance Monday that requires Atlanta's finance department to find the money for the Christmastime paychecks.
The City Council included the $2,000-per-cop bonuses in this year's budget as a way to reward officers with at least five years' experience. It's also supposed to make up for the city's discontinued policy in which officers cashed in unused sick time. The money was to come from $8.4 million that was supposed to go toward salaries for cop positions that have gone unfilled.
The checks were supposed to be dispersed Dec. 2.
But the language the council members used to include the bonuses in the budget wasn't specific enough to keep the city from spending it elsewhere, says Councilwoman Clair Muller. Instead of going into a separate fund, the police shortage savings went into the general fund.
At the Nov. 15 Finance Committee meeting, council members reacted angrily to the admission by deputy finance director Dominic Ochei that the money had been spent.
"We're talking about increasing benefits; that's the next level," Muller says. "At the very least, we need to make good on our promises."
Councilwoman Felicia Moore amended the proposed law so that the city must first find the money for the police bonuses before shifting money from departments that spent less than their 2000 allocations to departments that spent more. The amended ordinance now goes before Mayor Bill Campbell.
Chip Warren, the national vice president for the International Brotherhood of Police Officers says he believes officers will get their bonuses. Senior police officer Richard Straut, the senior vice president for the Atlanta chapter of the Police Benevolent Association of Georgia, says he's been assured by police brass that the money is there.
If they don't get the Christmas cash, Warren says he doesn't think police would win a court challenge over the issue because the wording of the bonus award is loose enough for the city to wiggle free.
The intent of the council to provide the bonus was clear, Warren says, but the budget is not explicit. "I guess this is what happens when you trust people who are not deserving of your trust."