In a 4-1 decision, the council voted to amend the Public Employees Retirement System (PERS) contract to allow police officers hired from other agencies to retire at age 50 instead of 55 while collecting pensions equal to 3 percent of their top salary for every year served. All other employees who work under PERS can now retire at age 55 while collecting 2.7 percent instead of 2 percent.
The amendment will cost the city an extra $4,502 for every lateral officer hired and an annual total of $23,670 for all other city employees. The council put a cap of five on the number of veteran cops that can be hired in the next 18 months.
“A lot of employee groups make concessions with us and save the city from bankruptcy,” said Mayor Wade Harper. “We are not trying to undo all that work. We are facing a crisis here, an unintended consequence when it comes to hiring police officers.”
According to Police Chief Alan Cantando, the department will need to fill as many as 26 vacancies in the next 18 months, but few officers from outside agencies are applying. One of two experienced officers hired in July has left, five didn’t show up for interviews on one day during the month of November and two officers interviewed in December are not expected to continue on in the recruitment process.
“When you’re looking at hiring one or two officers, that is not that difficult,” Cantando said. “When you’re looking at hiring 20 or 25 officers over an 18-month to two-year period, that’s critical, and that’s why this is such an urgent matter.”
By matching the sworn-staff benefits of other Bay Area cities such as Vallejo, Richmond and San Pablo, Cantando said the department would draw from a much larger pool of candidates who could make an immediate impact. Lateral officers can be put on the streets in as little as four weeks compared to about 17 weeks for entry-level recruits.
While the council briefly debated the need for the amendment, some Antioch residents voiced their concerns about the impact it would make on the city’s finances. The city must pay $27,556 for each new veteran hire under the new formula compared to $23,054 under the old formula.
The amendment reversed a September decision between the city and the Antioch Police Officers Association to amend the PERS contract so police hired after Sept. 1 of this year would need to wait until age 55 to start collecting pension benefits.
“The city has gone through some very rough financial times during the last four years,” said Wayne Harrison, speaking on behalf of six Antioch residents. “I’m not that convinced that this is all that necessary. Is this City Council really ready to push us back to the brink of insolvency?”
Councilman Gary Agopian cast the lone dissenting vote on two of the three parts to the measure. In the third section of the measure, the council unanimously decided to allow the department to hire only five veteran officers in the next 18 months.
“This is a very tough decision for us to make, whether we voted yes or no,” Agopian said. “Having seen the desire on the part of the council to have a very tight control over the hiring process, I think the number five is very prudent, and I do support that even though I voted against the other resolutions.”
The decision wrapped up a whirlwind series of meetings starting in late November in order to pass the ordinance before new legislation effective Jan. 1 dictates that existing members of PERS who are hired by another public agency receive the new agency’s benefits. All new police employees hired after Jan. 1 will be covered under a new statewide 2.7-at-57 pension plan. All other employees will receive 2.7-at-67.
According to Cantando, now that the change is in the books, he’ll adjust the pension formula used on all advertisements seeking candidates in the hope of building a force with a mix of lateral and entry-level officers.
“That would be great,” he said.