“I am not some union thug”: James Preston’s Speech to the Government Operations Subcommittee

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February 9, 2013

The following is the text version of FOP State President James Preston’s February 7, 2013, speech to the Florida House of Representatives Government Operations Subcommittee.  Sadly, the testimonials and facts presented to the subcommittee fell on deaf ears, as they agreed to pass this Bill and move full speed ahead with this crippling version of the House’s pension reform.

James Preston, FOP Florida State President

By: James Preston

Good Morning Mister Chairman and Representatives.

Thank you for the opportunity to speak here this morning on an issue most sacred to our membership. This is like Yogi Berra’s deja vue all over again.  We have been talking about this issue for a few sessions now.

My name is James Preston. I am the President of the Florida Fraternal Order of Police representing 20,000 law enforcement members across our state. Our members are all active or retired officers or deputies. They work in different agencies and cities and counties but they all have one thing in common and that is they all have a pension, either FRS or a Local Plan that they are depending on.

I worked for 30 years as a police officer with the City of Tampa. I am not a pension expert, but I am a pension recipient. I’ve served on the Tampa Fire and Police Pension Board during my career. My son is a Deputy in FRS and my son-in-law is a Homicide Detective in a local plan in Tampa.

My assignment today is to speak with you about the “disability” benefit provided in all Defined Benefit Plans and the possibility that with a 401K or Defined Contribution Plan that protection would evaporate.

First let me talk about being a police officer. In the beginning of your career, those first few years you are excited with all the toys. Oh boy, I’ve got a shiny badge, handcuffs, lights and sirens and get to carry a gun and drive fast to calls. I’m going to save the world. Pension is the farthest thing on your mind. You just know that when you signed up they mentioned something about a pension after 25 or 30 years. Never mind that you say, let’s go.

After about the 7th year of answering calls you begin to think, well I’ve seen it all. I’ve been shot at, kicked, punched, spit on. I’ve saved a life. I’ve seen the worst and the best in people. You start to think about this job being a career. Oh, yeah, there’s that pension thing at the end.

By the 10th year if you are still there you know you are staying to the end and begin to look towards that pension that was promised at the beginning. Now it is a goal, I’m going to make it. Everyone now begins the count down clock. I’ve got 10 years; I’ve got 5 years, only 6 months to go. And finally, I’ve got mine.

You all are supportive of the work these men and women do. I know that. Just Tuesday morning, I was at the Officer of the Year ceremony that Attorney General Bondi did in the Cabinet Room where 9 outstanding officers were recognized and honored for their sacrifice and service. I heard Speaker Weatherford remind everyone that the number 1 responsibility of government is to keep our public safe. He said “nothing was more important” and he thanked these individuals for their incredible service and sacrifice.

General Bondi spoke passionately about service over self. These men were praised for their willingness to put themselves in harm’s way so that you can stay safe.

I know that each of you appreciate the job these brave men and women do every day. They are in harm’s way 24/7 from day 1 as a fresh recruit to the last day as a crusty old dinosaur before they retire.

But, let me tell you what else these men and women face: Last year 5 officers died for you in the line of duty here in Florida. I went to their funerals. Nationally 126 died in 2012. Already in 2013 there have been 9 deaths, the last one just last Sunday in Portsmouth Virginia.

Just outside in the Capitol Courtyard is a memorial to the 756 Florida officers who lost their lives in the line of duty for you. Nationally over 19,000 men and women have their names inscribed on a wall in Washington, D.C. For several years, Florida led the nation in the number of line of duty deaths.

On average a police officer is killed every 53 hours in this country. No other profession except our military faces the dangers we are willing to face. When these men and women get ready for work they put on a vest, a gun, a uniform and badge. They carry handcuffs, batons, Tasers, radios and other safety equipment to do their job.

A statistic you don’t hear about often is the number of officers injured on the job. On average 60,000 across the country are injured each year. About 6,000 so severely they will have to retire.

Here in Florida there are 28,295 retired Special Risk members in FRS. Of those 1,513 are disabled. About 5.5%. There are 3,392 in the DROP program. Tampa, where I am from, being about average has 315 disabled retirees or about 10%. By the way, the Tampa Pension plan is 93% funded and will more than likely be over 100% funded after the next actuarial report.

I wanted to put a face to those who are disabled since that deeply concerns me. In Tampa, my good friend Dennis Garcia was 3 years on the job when a car slammed into him while he was helping a motorist. He lost his right leg. He is now a grandfather. Tampa Officer Dennis Duggan also lost his leg to a motorcycle accident. Thank God they have a disability pension to sustain them.

Tampa Officer Mike Vigil was shot three times with an AK47 in the chest. He survived only to contract Hepatitis C from all of the blood transfusions. Officer George Alatone suffered massive injury to his skull in a helicopter crash and Officer Amiee Peters suffered joint injuries in a car crash. They are unable to return to work.

In Tampa they were covered from day one as a fresh recruit by the disability pension. They would get 65% tax free for the rest of their lives.

Orange County Deputy Sheriff Adam Pierce is confined to a wheel chair paralyzed from the waist down after being shot in the back. He refuses to give up and continues to work as a deputy and you here in the legislature passed the Adam Pierce Bill several years ago to allow him to continue to be in the Special Risk category.

Last year you passed the John Mecklenberg Bill after Hernando Deputy Mecklenberg was killed during a pursuit, making it a felony murder to flee from the police if any person dies as a result. His wife and son need the benefits promised.

In Miami, Officer Manny Gomez retired with a broken neck and Officer Ricky Taylor was shot in the head on New Year’s Eve a few years ago. He was just months from retirement but is now on a disability pension. In Fort Lauderdale, Officer Jeff Richey had part of his hand shot off. In Gainesville, Officer Paul Strama’s shoulder was so badly damaged in a fight he had to retire.

In Miami Beach, Officer Dan Pindar responded to a burglary and was shot in the stomach. He can no longer work. Miami Beach Officer Richard Trado was shot in the arm and permanently lost function of his right arm.

The stories could go on and on. We accept these risks and depend on the disability and pension to protect us and our families.

Now let’s talk about a defined contribution plan, closing the defined benefit plan leaving us without a disability or death provision. A young officer with only a few years or months on would never have enough time to build any sustainable 401K plan to care for himself or family. An older officer with a life expectancy of let’s say 80 years would run out of money very quickly. Now remember they are totally and permanently disabled. Unable to perform their duties.

They do not have social security in most cases as their agency opted out many years ago or if they are lucky enough to get social security it will be reduced by two thirds because of the Federal Wind Fall Elimination Provision and the Government Pension Offset. So under the proposed plan to close the Defined Benefit plan, future officers who become disabled in the line of duty after January 1, 2014, will be left to fend for themselves. Those who are willing to sacrifice for you will wind up in poverty on food stamps and welfare still unable to work when their 401K runs out.

So, what provision will you have for Line of Duty disabled officers or those unfortunate families who must face life alone if their hero is killed in the line of duty after January 1, 2014?

Representatives, what I’ve been speaking about this morning have been described as “emotional triggers”. We are pulling at your heart. No sir, these are realities to us. We are middle income middle America, working class stiffs. We live and shop in your communities. We are your neighbors and friends. We sit next to you in church and pay our taxes. We are raising families and earning a pension with our blood and sweat.

We are willing to go down that dark alley you would avoid. We are willing to face unimaginable evil and say “no way”, not on my watch”. We do this to keep you safe.

I have spoken to Connecticut officers who were at Sandy Hook who have told me the carnage was indescribable. What you heard in the media does not come close to what they actually saw and dealt with. God forbid that evil comes to Florida

I don’t want to appear greedy; I am not delivering a union message. I am talking about working people. I am trying to put a human face on these officers. I am thinking about the unborn future officers who will face the dangers ahead of them in the future. Maybe they will think twice about the danger and not take the risk.

Here is another consideration that perhaps you have not thought about that concerns me. The new generation x and y will have on average 4 jobs in 7 years. Their 401K being portable, off they go to a new career every few years. You will no longer have 25 and 30 year career officers. Training and retention costs will sky rocket as officers move in and out of the profession. Massive turnover rates, increased liability risks will become the rule. Australia went to a DC plan in 1988. Their experience now is that male officers leave after 14 years while female officers leave at 7 years.

If future officers cannot join the Defined Benefit plan, closed to fresh money coming in, the result is a declining defined benefit payroll base. Contribution rates would increase and the UAL would expand. Over time the DB plan cost per DB participant would increase.

In a closed plan, as the active population begins to shrink and the retired population continues to grow, benefit payments will exceed the contributions. This will necessitate future changes in asset allocation. It’s going to cost more!

A DC plan is likely to result in lower and less secure retirement benefits for everyone in the system. According to a report released on December 5, 2012, by the National Institute on Retirement Security, these type of defined contribution accounts entail fundamentally greater risk and marked inefficiencies compared to defined benefit plans. These risks will translate to significantly higher funding costs.

You know the Florida Retirement system is in great condition – much better than most other states in spite of the fact that the state has not made their UAL payment in the last 3 years.

We are willing to work with you, we are willing to be flexible and adapt to changes, but we are not willing to throw our members under a bus. We know we are facing a crisis unlike any we have ever seen and accept the challenge to help find a solution that everyone can live with. These men and women protect you and you must protect them. Make sure they have provision for a disability and death benefit suitable for their service.

I thank you for your indulgence and appreciate you listening to me this morning. By the way, I am not some union thug as we have been described as in some media. I am just a retired cop who asks myself often “what were you thinking running for union president in the worse economy and most anti public employee atmosphere in U.S. history. These days I mostly just answer to grandpa at home.

Good morning, thank you and God bless you.


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