Sheriff, fire chief: Pension uncertainty creates instability

Rutherford says 5 SWAT officers recently left for Denver, Colo.

By Tarik Minor - Anchor, I-TEAM reporter

JACKSONVILLE, Fla. - Jacksonville Sheriff John Rutherford and Fire Chief Martin Senterfitt addressed members of the pension reform task force on Wednesday.

They asked panel members to make a wise decision because they say the pension problems are having a detrimental affect on employees.

The task force met for the second-to-last time before it makes a final vote Feb. 26 on its recommendation to fix the city's pension mess.

"We had a reputation for a long time of never losing officers to other agencies. That's not true anymore," Rutherford said.

He said the uncertainty surrounding the city's pension plan is taking its toll on officers. Just recently, Rutherford said, five officers left the Jacksonville Sheriff's Office SWAT team for the Denver (Colo.) Police Department, unsure of their financial future in the River City.

"It's all over this pension discussion," Rutherford said. "If nothing else, we need certainty about what this thing is going to be. That has created tremendous problems."

The sheriff told members of the pension reform task force that the average JSO officer receives $70,000 worth of training. When an officer leaves, all that experience also walks out the door.

Rutherford said he doesn't want to resort to hiring less experienced officers.

"We need to have a decent pension plan that these officers can depend on that will help me provide a stable work force in this agency," he said.

Senterfitt also shared struggles with retaining firefighters. He said stability is the key is his department's success because firefighters want to know what their future holds.

"We want employees who will stay here for 25-35 years," Senterfitt said. "We want employees who will stay in Jacksonville for a cost-benefit analysis, and to have them walk away after we spent all this money training them after 25-30 years, that would be devastating."

Wednesday's meeting was all about the structure of the pension plan that the task force is considering, but the group still hasn't decided whether to adopt the mayor's plan, raise taxes or create a sales tax.

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