Change in pension prompts law enforcement retirements
WILLMAR –– A change in how retirement benefits are calculated for Minnesota law enforcement officers has resulted in resignations across the state, including the retirement of four deputies in the Kandiyohi County Sheriff’s Office that has caused a chain reaction in promotions, staffing assignments and hiring of new officers.
The retirements include the chief deputy, patrol sergeant, drug task force director and a patrol officer, the promotion of at least three officers to fill those leadership positions and the hiring of four new officers.
“This is one of the biggest transitions (in the county) we’ve had at one time,” said Kandiyohi County Sheriff Dan Hartog.
“It’s a loss of a lot of years of experience. It’s going to be a big hole to fill there,” said Hartog, adding that the retirements have created a “domino effect” in the leadership ladder in the department.
“Anytime you have upper command retiring, it shakes the tree pretty good as far as movement within the office,” said Hartog.
The waves of change are hitting sheriff’s offices and city police departments all across the state with an estimated 1,200 officers expected to retire at the end of the month, before changes in the Public Employee Retirement Association take effect.
Hartog said more than one-third of the state’s 87 county sheriffs are expected to retire at the end of the month.
Along with that, many police officers — including Willmar Police Chief David Wyffels and Sgt. Julie Asmus — are retiring May 31.
Because the county and city departments work closely together, Hartog said there will be adjustments when the city names its new chief.
The quick exodus is happening because of changes made to fix a financial shortfall in the pension fund for those in the police and fire plan.
In 2013 the Legislature made changes to bolster that fund, in part through increased employee and employer contributions.
Another part of the financial reckoning is an increased penalty for early retirements — those occurring before age 55 — and a decrease in pension cost-of-living payments.
Those who retire now are guaranteed a 1 percent annual cost-of-living increase in their pension.
But those who retire after May 31 will not receive a cost-of-living increase for about three years, said Hartog.
That creates a personal financial loss a retiree would see in reduced pension payments for the rest of their life.
“If you miss out on that cost of living, that’s forever,” said County Administrator Larry Kleindl. “You don’t make that up.”
Also, officers who choose early retirement now will avoid the increased penalty for early retirements. The reduction in benefits for early retirement is currently 1.2 percent for each year an officer retires before age 55. The annual reduction for early retirement will be gradually increasing, to a high of 5 percent by the year 2019.
Calculations provided on Minnesota’s Public Employee Retirement Association website, however, indicate that the early retirement reduction, and even the loss of the cost-of-living increase, could be offset by increased earning power and a larger salary for people who opt to work longer and retire later.
Retire or wait
Hartog, who served as president of the Minnesota Sheriff’s Association in 2012 when the pension issue was a hot topic, said officers eligible for early retirement began pushing the pencil as soon as the changes were given legislative approval.
He did the same, and although he could have retired now to avoid taking a financial hit in pension benefits, Hartog said he will continue working.
He’s up for re-election this fall and intends to run again.
“I’m just not ready (to retire),” said Hartog. “I enjoy what I’m doing. I enjoy coming to work every day.”
Three of the four deputies who are retiring now are over the age of 55 and likely considered a combination of finances, age and years of service when deciding whether to retire now or later, said Hartog.
They include Chief Deputy Randy Kveene; Patrol Sergeant Gary Wyffels; CEE-VI Drug Task Force Director Sgt. Tony Cruze; and Patrol Deputy Alberto “Beto” Ramon.
“The concern, of course, is you’re going to lose a lot of experience,” said Hartog, who had high praise for the work of the four officers. “They’re all going to be missed.”
When he started hearing rumblings of officers considering retiring, Hartog said he encouraged his staff to provide early notice so that the vacancies could be filled prior to the start of the county’s busy summer lake season and to “keep the force to a level that we can still function properly.”
Lynne Travaglio, the county’s human resources director, said the “loyalty” of the four retiring officers was clear because they were “just as concerned about what was going to happen to the Sheriff’s Department as we were.”
Hartog said the retiring officers wanted to make sure the new officers were adequately trained so that their old partners would have good people backing them up on service calls.
New recruits ready
Knowing that retirements were coming, Hartog and Travaglio had a plan in place to advertise early for openings so that candidates could undergo the required written testing and background, psychological and medical checks.
That plan put the county “well ahead of the game,” said Kleindl.
The new officers were hired in mid-March and began a three-month field officer training.
They will ready to go before the retirees walk out the door, said Hartog.
Some agencies aren’t hiring officers until the retirees leave. “That puts them in a pretty tough spot,” said Hartog. “We’re fortunate here.”
The newly hired Kandiyohi County officers all have ties to the county. Three have past experience and one is a recent graduate.
“The talent pool we had to choose from was outstanding,” said Travaglio.
“I think we have very good candidates,” said Hartog.
While losing experienced officers is hard on a department, the transition offers good opportunities for new officers who have been waiting in the wings, said Kleindl.
The Kandiyohi County Sheriff’s Office, like many agencies, has had a hiring freeze in place for the last five to seven years. Even with the new hires, the department still has two fewer officers than in 2007.
That freeze has meant recent graduates, who have been working part-time or working other jobs, have not had a lot of full-time law enforcement job opportunities in Minnesota until now.
“This is an opportunity, statewide, for a lot of individuals to get in the field,” said Kleindl.
“They’ve been waiting for this. They’re excited and they’ll bring some new excitement and ideals to the office,” he said.
A joint public farewell coffee time to honor the retirees from the Kandiyohi County Sheriff’s Office and the Willmar Police Department, will be from 2 to 4 p.m. May 30 in the community operation center at the law enforcement center.