|Source:||Daily News of Newburyport (MA)|
Mar. 3–AMESBURY — Across the state, veteran police officers with decades of experience are choosing to retire earlier than anticipated because of fears over Gov. Deval Patrick’s recently proposed changes to the state pension system.
In Amesbury, two longtime police veterans — Chief Michael Cronin and Deputy Chief Gary Ingham — who are both eligible for full pensions, say they are considering their options.
“The rumor was out there that the chief and I were both retiring,” said Ingham last week when asked if he were planning to step down this spring. “I don’t know yet. I am at maximum retirement level. I’m 55 years of age with 32 years of service, so I can retire with maximum benefit anytime I wanted to.”
Ingham earned $134,329 last year and said he still loves his job. But his concern is over Patrick’s proposed changes to the state’s pension system that would cap annual employee pensions and increase the number of years used to determine pension salaries.
Cronin, who earns $167,648, said he is also considering retiring.
Currently, fully vested employees, such as Cronin and Ingham, would get annual pensions equal to 80 percent of the average pay of their top three earning years. Patrick proposes capping pensions at $85,000 and calculating pensions based on an employee’s top five years.
The proposed legislation seeks to add more years to the age at which state employees can be vested for retirement, so that employees currently able to retire at 45 would have to wait until age 50 to receive those benefits, and employees able to receive full benefits at age 55 would have to wait until age 57 to receive those benefits.
Lawmakers haven’t voted on Patrick’s proposal yet.
Ingham said he and others are paying attention and considering their options.
“My concern is the pension system,” he said. “I obviously have to keep an eye on that to make sure I don’t hurt myself there. At my age and career level, I have to watch that.”
Ingham said he’s heard somewhere between 30 and 40 people have retired in a single week from the state police, and he and Cronin are both of the age where the same concerns that prompted those retirements would concern them.
“I know there’s a lot of police bailing out right now that are in the same position we are,” he said.
Cronin said this week that the decision on whether to retire early would be an easy one if the changes to the pension system were enacted.
“Like everyone in my position, I have 34 years-plus of service, and I’m over 55 years old, so I’ve maxed out my retirement,” Cronin said. “I could be collecting full retirement now and not working. The decision isn’t going to be hard if they start to change retirement rules and try to take things away from people.”
Cronin intimated the state might have a fight on its hands if lawmakers try to change the pension terms for current employees who have been working under these terms for years.
“Retirement benefits are actually contractual — there’s case law on that,” he said. “You can change the rules for new people coming in or you can make adjustments based on vesting.
“But it’s very hard to take something away from somebody who’s technically already earned it without facing one of those lawsuits like the fire department filed last year in Boston. They’re still trying to work that one out.”
According to Cronin and the mayor’s office, there’s already a cap on how long Cronin will remain chief of police in Amesbury, regardless of how pension reform plays out.
Mayor Thatcher Kezer said earlier this month he elected not to renew Cronin’s contract that expired last year, indicating instead a desire to renegotiate it.
“His contract was coming up to a due date for renewal, and I gave notice to him that I want to negotiate the contract rather than automatically renew it,” Kezer said of the process. “Then, what he did is provide notice without giving a date that, under his contract, gives notice of his intent to retire, which means he continues to work. It extends his contract up to three years under the same terms of his contract.”
The three-year extension was a provision written into Cronin’s contract prior to Kezer’s arrival in office, he said, adding that Cronin’s exact retirement date has not been set.
“There is no date set,” Kezer said. “He is 30-some-odd years in the business. It’s pretty easy to figure out that he’s coming to the twilight of his career, but there is no date set.”
Ingham said he’s leaning toward staying on for a while longer, while keeping his eye on pension reform efforts and how they might affect his situation. Until then, there’s a lot of positives to staying on the job, he said. Ingham refuted reports that he’s under pressure to leave.
“There’s absolutely nobody asking me to retire,” he said. “On the contrary, guys here have asked me to stay on, and I get on very well with the mayor. I still enjoy the job. I’m still having fun. The community has been very good to me.
“I’m having a difficult time making a decision,” he added. “I think I’m probably more on the side of I’d like to stay as opposed to leave.”
Cronin said he also has no planned date set for retirement, and he disputed the mayor’s assertion that his contract hadn’t been renewed.
“It wasn’t that my contract hasn’t been renewed,” he said. “My contract runs to 2012, and I didn’t bother going in and trying to renew beyond that. Basically, I’ve made the decision that I’m going to retire sometime between now and 2012. I haven’t picked an actual retirement date.”
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