Is it necessary for the Legislature to ban government payroll deductions for union dues — or is it pure political payback?
And what did GOP-friendly police unions expect from a capitol run only by Republicans aligned with industry lobbyists, the Tea Party and right-wing think tanks?
I put those questions to sheriff’s Lt. Bert Gamin, president of the Fraternal Order of Police in Brevard County. Besides deputies, the union represents officers and lieutenants in Rockledge, Palm Bay, Titusville and several beach-side cities.
Question: A bill by Rep. Ritch Workman, R-Melbourne, would deduct 3 percent from public employees’ pay to help fund their pension. Today, state and local governments pay 100 percent for most employees. What’s wrong with that?
Gamin: Retirement and pay go together. It’s difficult to write a single law because there are so many different pay plans and benefits packages. A starting deputy sheriff is looking at a pay reduction of almost $1,400, which would take effect July 1. Our governor has referred to our Florida retirement trust fund as a “ticking time bomb”. . . that it could become insolvent or unsustainable. Nothing could be further from the truth. As we sit here, there is approximately $120 billion in the trust fund, and it is funded at somewhere between 88 and 90 percent. Which means that if every single person in the system notified the state that they were going to retire — which isn’t going to happen — they would be able to pay 90 percent of the benefits owed.
We’re not opposed to some changes that would make the system better. But look at the record. Between 1998 and 2008, the fund was over-funded for 11 straight years at 111 percent. That’s when you saw the Legislature extend some of the benefits that are currently there. The opinion of the Fraternal Order of Police is that with a lot of these bills being proposed, the rhetoric and fear is just not true. They’re using it to come after our unions, our retirement and our payroll deductions. The fund got hit when the economy tanked in 2009, but everybody got hit.
Q: Workman says that supplanting employer contributions with employee contributions could save state government alone $770 million. That’s about a quarter of this year’s shortfall. What’s wrong with that?
GAMIN: The bottom line is the retirements that people have been promised. People were depending on this money. Five of my co-workers and I went to a town hall meeting in Palm Bay, and Rep. Workman and Rep. John Tobia, R-Melbourne, were the first ones to say, ‘Look, changes may need to come to the retirement system, but people who are approaching retirement, it would not be fair to change the system right now for those people.’ ” And the two of them turned around, drove up to Tallahassee and filed bills that affect people July 1.
Q: Is it fair to say that public employees would be willing to sacrifice if it meant improving the solvency of their own retirement system? But you object to giving up that money simply to balance state and local budgets?
GAMIN: Absolutely. I’m extremely concerned when you take a deputy for the Brevard County Sheriff’s Office, who makes $36,000 a year in starting pay, and you tell them they’re taking about $110 to $120 a month.
Q: All five House members for Brevard voted for a bill that would ban payroll deductions for union dues for public employees.
The justification was that dues are used for campaign contributions. What do you make of that?
GAMIN: I’ll tell you this. In Florida, there are six labor unions that do payroll deductions. The state of Florida allows 350 deductions for various charities. I’ve heard they’re a burden government shouldn’t have to deal with. Ask yourself: Is the issue really that it costs too much? Or is this just payback?
Q: What portion of FOP dues go to political contributions?
GAMIN: Of the dues we collect for my lodge . . . every year, we pay about $25 per employee to the state Fraternal Order of Police. Of that, $1 goes to our political action committee.
Over the last 10 years, my lodge has donated close to $30,000 to officers injured in the line of duty, to local charities, Little League teams, Boy Scouts. I operate as a labor union, but also as a charity and a fraternal-social organization.
Q: How would you characterize the union’s relationship with Sheriff Jack Parker?
GAMIN: I’ve worked for three sheriffs, and he’s the best I’ve ever worked for. He’s a Republican sheriff. When I get tired or de-motivated, I look at what our sheriff is doing. He’s very involved in the Florida Sheriff’s Association. And he’s out there fighting, trying to convince legislators and the public that the Florida Retirement System is not broken. He is fighting for deputies who haven’t even been hired yet.
Q: Police unions have a history of endorsing and funding Republican candidates. How do officers respond when they hear Republican politicians or talk-radio callers say you’ve been living large on other people’s taxes, and it’s time to treat you more like the private sector?
GAMIN: To watch the shows on Fox News, and then to have our governor and Rep. Workman — who we supported heavily — to hear them say that high-risk, high-hazard cops, firefighters and corrections officers should be treated like the private sector . . . it’s visceral. We don’t get the free pass that the private sector gets. I’ve seen officers injured in the line of duty who have lost their careers. They can’t work. Firefighters pay the same price. For them to say, Lt. Gamin, 18 years with the sheriff’s office, out on the front line, trying to find bad guys and put ’em in jail and protect this community . . . for that level of rhetoric to now come to the surface, most of us are stunned and demoralized by it.
Contact Reed at 321-242-3631 or firstname.lastname@example.org.
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