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by Jordan Green

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PROPOSAL TO PHASE OUT WINSTON-SALEM POLICE RETIREMENT SYSTEM GETS COMMITTEE APPROVAL

The Finance Committee of the Winston-Salem City Council, chaired by Northwest Ward Councilwoman Wanda Merschel, voted unanimously on Monday evening to phase out the city’s police retirement system.

Starting on Jan. 1, 2014, new police officers will no longer be eligible for the program, which has allowed police officers to collect 55.5 percent of their highest salary upon retiring. The change, which requires approval from the full council, will not affect current or retired officers. The one year delay in implementation is designed to ensure that the changes do not affect members of the current recruit class, who might have signed up for their jobs based on the department’s generous benefits package.

“We value our police officers,” Merschel said before the vote. “This is a victim of the new economy.”

Council members have been discussing the change since the end of the last budget cycle in May because of escalating costs to maintain the program. To maintain solvency, the city had been forced to increase its contributions to the fund to offset disappointing investment returns as the recession battered the stock market. The city’s contribution to the fund in 2014 is expected to be $6.2 million.

Under the current system, it was mandatory for officers to pay into the city’s police retirement system.

Virtually all of them also paid into the state retirement system. The two systems gave officers a combined retirement benefit of 111 percent of their highest salary earned during their employment with the department. They did not pay into or receive Social Security benefits.

Now, new officers who join the force after Dec. 31, 2013, will pay into the state retirement system and a defined contribution retirement plan funded by officers and the city in lieu of Social Security.

The proposed changes have prompted little controversy, with the exception of a statement Lt. Robert Cozart made to YES! Weekly last June expressing concern that ending the program would negatively affect the quality of recruits the department is able to attract.

West Ward Councilman Robert Clark, the council’s liaison to the Winston-Salem Police Officers Retirement Commission, said on Monday that a public meeting at Lawrence Joel Veterans Memorial Coliseum had drawn only about 25 people, many of them retired officers, who seemed indifferent to the changes.

Chief Scott Cunningham said after the vote that the department’s benefits package still compares favorably to other major cities around the state, including Greensboro.

“I don’t think this is going to hurt us in the recruiting arena,” he said.

“The new plan isn’t as robust as the one we have currently,” he added. “It’s more feasible to maintain for the city. We’re not opposed to this at all.”

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