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Editorial: Peculiar pensions / County police work their way to a 9/11 windfall

Thursday, October 03, 2002

If Americans have learned one thing in the past year, it's the price of heightened security. It comes as no surprise then that the higher cost would show up in pension projections for county police.

Allegheny County Controller Dan Onorato ran the stats this week on the pensions that veteran county police could collect if they retired next year. Some of the numbers, especially for officers at the airport, looked outrageous.

One 28-year veteran with a $56,000 salary will qualify for an annual pension of $98,500. A sergeant with 29 years' service and a $63,400 salary can collect a $68,700 pension. And a 21-year officer making $55,000 could retire with a $57,300 benefit.

Although the other pension numbers are fairly tame, the controller's run shows that the 40 county police who are eligible to retire with full benefits will make $807,000 on overtime for this year, 52 percent more than in 2001. All that, of course, will become part of pension calculations that are based on an employee's two highest income years of the last four.

Most people, it's safe to say, expect to see less income than more during retirement, but these county officers will do better because of the convergence of four factors: state law on police pensions, the lid on county hiring, the additional security after 9/11 and the rejection of overtime duty by their fellow officers.

In short, the officers willing to soak up the overtime sweetened their pensions fair and square, under a contract with the county that was set by arbitration. Fortunately, the cost of county police at Pittsburgh International Airport, including the employer's retirement fund contribution, is reimbursed by the airport authority using airline fees and federal funds. The county's operating budget does not pick up the tab and, despite the controller's alarm, does not suffer exposure.

The only issue, then, might be the excessive hours worked by employees who, of course, carry guns. Even if the contract lets them earn wages and, later on, handsome pensions generated by an 80-hour work week, it's fair for the flying public to ask two things: what's the quality of security provided by heavily worked employees and how steady are their trigger fingers?

To its credit, the Roddey administration is active on several fronts to keep county operations within budget, but there comes a point when overtime is overused. In jobs meant to keep county facilities secure and the public safe, that time may be now.

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