TAMPA — She’s returning as a contract worker, but the official retirement of Tampa Police Chief Jane Castor’s pending retirement heralds a wave of departures sweeping soon through Tampa’s public safety agencies.
About 9 percent of the city’s police and fire staffers will head for the doors in the next two years as part of the city’s Deferred Retirement Option Program, according to city records.
Dozens more could leave when they reach 31 years and 9 months of service, the point at which their pensions will equal their salaries. Tampa police have 30 non-DROP employees with at least 29 years of service, meaning they could be eligible to retire over the next two years.
Tampa Fire Rescue has 11 workers in the same situation, including Fire Chief Tom Forward, who will reach his full-retirement point in June 2015. Forward, who took office in 2010, says he plans to stay as long as Mayor Bob Buckhorn wants him to.
The current crop of workers in DROP is the smallest it has been in many years. That’s because the economic uncertainty that came with the Great Recession persuaded public employees in Tampa and across the country to delay their retirements, said Elizabeth Kellar, president of the Washington, D.C.-based Center for State and Local Government Excellence.
As the economy improves, that backlog is breaking up and retirement numbers should grow again, she said.
In 2009, 85 percent of public-sector human resources directors said their employees were delaying retirement. Last year, that number had dropped to 38 percent, Kellar said.
“It’s a really tricky time,” Kellar said.
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The retirements threaten to sweep away decades of institutional memory in the city police and fire departments, even as they open room for advancement. The retirements also represent a generational change as Baby Boomers give way to those in Generation X, Generation Y and Millenials — each of whom has a very different attitude toward public service than their predecessors.
Finally, departments must face the challenge of finding new recruits in a time of tight budgets, less job security and strong competition from the private sector.
“It’s gloomy national and internationally,” Forward said.
Here’s an example of how hard DROP will hit the Tampa Police Department: Castor’s two assistants chiefs are also in DROP. John Bennett, who led the department’s preparations for the 2012 Republican National Convention, is set to retire next year. John Newman leaves next month for a job with Hillsborough County Schools and will begin collecting his police pension at the end of 2015.
The department’s District 1 office, covering West Tampa and South Tampa, has 17 percent of its staff in DROP, including its leader, Maj. Paul Driscoll, three of its six lieutenants and four of 11 school resource officers. District 1 is the city’s so-called champagne district: “a nice place to live, a nice place to work,” said department spokeswoman Laura McElroy, which makes it a attractive to senior members of the police force.
The fire department will lose Assistant Chief of Operations Scott Ehlers, who shares Castor’s May 6 retirement date, along with seven captains and seven of nine driver engineers.
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Public-safety workers dominated the city’s DROP list because they retire earlier than their counterparts in the rest of the city government.
Because of the danger and stress of their jobs, firefighters and police officers are eligible to retire after 20 years. They can enter DROP after 25 years with the understanding that when they reach 30 years of service they must leave. Once they’re in DROP, there’s no going back.
Under that formula, police and firefighters who start working in their early 20s can be collecting their pensions before they hit 50. Other city employees, who have their own pension fund, must wait until they’re 62 in most cases. They can leave at 55 but lose 5 percent of their benefits for every year before 62, said fund director Mark Borghich.
The wave of retirements moving through Tampa and the rest of the country is just the latest societal change as the demographic bulge known as the Baby Boomers age, Kellar said.
But the impact is being felt in the public sector more than elsewhere because Boomers have filled the ranks of government agencies at higher rates than the generations that followed them.
“We heard John F. Kennedy talking about public service in a very inspirational way,” Kellar said.
By the time Ronald Reagan took office in 1981, government had become a problem, not a calling. Generation X and their younger siblings don’t look at the government with the same sense of duty as Baby Boomers, Kellar said.
Austerity, salary freezes and a growing public disdain for government workers is also making recruitment challenging.
“The environment has been pretty difficult,” Kellar said.
Public sector jobs have also become more complex in many cases, making it difficult for young people to get them without higher education, internships and other training, she said.
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Further complicating recruitment, private-sector contractors now do some of the work governments used to handle in-house.
“How much you can reduce your workforce without putting the public at risk is an important question,” Kellar said.
Tampa has lost hundreds of public-sector jobs since the recession began eating into its tax receipts in 2009. The Tampa Police Department is about 20 percent smaller than it was in 2006, the high-water mark for city finances. Tampa Fire Rescue has grown by 3 percent in that same period.
As the two departments prepare for the Boomers’ exodus, they’re taking different approaches to succession-planning.
McElroy said the police department is already hiring in anticipation of more than 100 retirements. Within the department, higher-ranking officers mentor their replacements to prepare them to take over. The loss of Castor and her assistants will make room for majors just below them to move up. Many have less than 20 years service and could be on the job for years to come, she said.
“The retirements allow for the upwardly mobile, progressive, innovative thinkers to rise to the top,” McElroy said.
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Fire Chief Forward said he sees strong interest whenever he opens the doors for recruitment.
Among those hundreds of applicants are firefighters from other departments who see Tampa as a place to finish their careers, as well as young people looking to serve the public, he said.
Under former Mayor Pam Iorio, the fire department lowered its minimum age for a firefighter recruit from 21 to 18 hoping to catch people before they make the kind of mistakes — arrests, DUIs — that can eliminate them from consideration. That has helped lower the average age of rank-and-file firefighters.
“Tampa Fire Rescue is the youngest it’s ever been,” said Mark Borgush, chairman of the Fire and Police Pension Board.
Once the department does find young people to fill gaps the ranks, Forward said, they’re often less interested in moving into leadership roles.
He tries to buffer his department against the coming brain drain by requiring leaders to know how to do the work of those one step above them. That makes transitions smoother.
Then there’s the large three-ring binder on his conference table that spells out how each division within the fire department works.
“That’s the institutional memory,” he said.