In the process of making cuts affecting the N.H. Retirement System, legislators may also be cutting short careers.
Firefighters, police and other public servants covered under the N.H. Retirement System are considering putting in their notice early, before retirement reforms being debated in the House and Senate go into effect.
And with so many senior staffers possibly leaving, those left behind are wondering what their departments will look like after they are gone.
Capt. Peter S. Thomas has been a police officer for 29 years and in the N.H. Retirement System for 27 years.
Known as “Sturdy” to his fellow officers, Thomas is 53 years old and one of the most senior officers on the Keene police force.
He is among nine people eligible for retirement in the 46-person department.
Thomas loves his job, but he is 90-percent certain he will not be there next year, he said.
“I think anybody who has the age and the years is seriously considering retiring,” Thomas said.
SB 3, which reforms the N.H. Retirement System, has House and Senate versions that must be reconciled before moving to Gov. John H. Lynch.
Lynch had his own retirement reform proposal, which shared many traits with the Senate bill, but would not affect current employees, only new hires.
The bill would require public employees to work longer and pay more for their retirement benefits.
For police and firefighters, retirement would be dependent on working 25 years in the system rather than the 20 currently on the books. The Senate version, which would go into effect Jan. 1, would not affect employees who have at least 10 years of service. The House version would affect all employees who retire after July 1, 2016.
Other public employees affected are teachers and municipal and county workers.
For Thomas, the changes could mean having to work an additional six years to receive the same pension he would by retiring right now, he said.
Public employees are dependent on the N.H. Retirement System, Thomas said.
“None of us pay Social Security; our Social Security is the New Hampshire Retirement System,” Thomas said.
Thomas understands that with people living longer and the retirement system in debt, things have to change. But he thinks this reform bill will have a negative effect on the Keene department, encouraging many with institutional knowledge to leave early.
“In 29 years, I’ve made all kinds of contacts throughout law enforcement federally and locally,” Thomas said. “If all of the senior people were to leave without all of those contacts, things will happen. ... This organization would survive, but there would be a rough patch.”
New recruits might also think twice before joining a New Hampshire department with the new law in effect, making vacancies harder to fill, Thomas said. Police in Massachusetts make more, but New Hampshire had better retirement benefits, he said.
Police Sgt. Eliezer Rivera is in his 20th year with the Keene police force, meaning he could just barely retire with full benefits under the current system.
But Rivera plans to stay.
Losing several experienced people could be challenging for a while, but the department will continue to function, he said.
“This department has done a good job of training people to prepare themselves for the next step,” Rivera said. “We have good qualified people ready to step up at any position.”
It will take several months to hire someone to fill a vacancy, however.
“You will see overtime and working at minimum deployment until those voids are filled from hiring and promotions, but are we going to do our job — absolutely.”
The Keene Fire Department has nine employees eligible for retirement out of 45.
Chief Gary P. Lamoureux is among them.
“I think it’s an unfortunate situation that the legislation is doing what it’s doing,” Lamoureux said. “It’s pushing workers to have to leave and that puts the community at risk.”
For Lamoureux, it could be 71/2 years until he has the same retirement benefits he has today, he said. He has been with the department 33 years and covered under the retirement system for 27.
For all the time he was covered by the N.H. Retirement System, Lamoureux put 9.34 percent of his pay into the retirement account.
N.H. School Administrative Unit 29 employs more than 650 people enrolled in the N.H. Retirement System. Human Resources Director Paul R. Cooper isn’t concerned too many people will retire, however.
The district saw a spike in retirements in 2008 when a stipend for retirees’ health care costs was eliminated, but so far Cooper hasn’t seen anyone list the new legislation as a reason for retiring, he said.
“For teachers, this isn’t going to be the same kind of impact it will be for firefighters or police,” Cooper said.
The Senate version of the bill only affects teachers’ contribution rates. The House version would increase the age required for retirement from 60 to 65.
The local school administrative unit sees between 15 and 20 retirements a year, on average, and there are always many applicants, Cooper said.
The district is much more concerned with whether or not the state will contribute to the retirement system, as it has done historically.
“We stand to lose a million dollars,” Cooper said.
The governor’s original budget proposal from February eliminated the state’s subsidy of the retirement system. The money was put back in the House’s version, passed in March.
Dave Eisenstadter can be reached at 352-1234, extension 1432, or firstname.lastname@example.org