MOUNT DESERT — Police Chief Jim Willis wants the town to offer police officers a better retirement plan.
“I think that veteran police officers would be attracted to an improved retirement plan, and the town would be more likely to retain that group of employees,” he said in a memo to Town Manager Durlin Lunt.
Under the plan the town currently offers through the Maine Public Employees Retirement System (PERS), an employee can retire with full benefits at age 65. Those hired before June 30, 2014, can retire at 60 with 25 years of service.
Willis noted that many cities and towns offer PERS plans that allow employees to retire younger. For example, he said, Bar Harbor employees can retire with full benefits at age 55 with 25 years of service. And he cited one Maine town that has decided to allow police officers to retire with two-thirds pay after 25 years of service with no age limit.
“They did it after getting frustrated with not being able to attract and keep candidates,” he said in his memo to Lunt. “I’m worried we’ll soon find ourselves in that situation if we don’t get moving with a better benefit package.
“Special plans are available for public safety employees, and many agencies offer them,” Willis said. He added that giving officers the option to retire after 25 years with two-thirds pay is “not rare in our profession.”
Retirement plan options were among the topics raised when Lunt met in May with department heads and a few other non-union employees to discuss their benefits package.
Following that meeting, the Board of Selectmen asked Lunt to conduct a survey of towns on the Maine coast to find out how their employee benefits compare to Mount Desert’s. He selected 13 towns for his analysis, including Bar Harbor, Southwest Harbor and Ellsworth.
In his report to the selectmen on his findings, Lunt said a number of the communities he surveyed offer “years-of-service” plans.
“The majority of these plans exist in public safety departments, where careers are usually shorter due to the physical and mental stresses related to law enforcement and firefighting,” he said. “The towns of Boothbay Harbor and Bath are the only surveyed towns that offer this benefit to all municipal employees.”
Lunt told the selectmen that Willis strongly recommends a years-of-service retirement plan for police officers.
“He feels that Mount Desert is at a severe competitive disadvantage in the recruitment and retention of police officers in an environment where many Maine communities are experiencing shortages of qualified applicants.”
Lunt said that if Mount Desert were to offer police officers the same plan that Bar Harbor has, the town’s firefighters could enroll in that plan as well.
Members of the Board of Selectmen at their meeting last week expressed support for offering public safety employees a more attractive retirement plan.
Selectmen indicated they also are open to the idea of closing the small gap in the annual cost-of-living salary increase for the town’s union and non-union employees.
Currently, 14 public works employees are the only town employees who belong to a union. They receive an automatic 2 percent cost-of-living adjustment (COLA). The standard COLA for non-union employees is 1.8 percent.
But according to Lunt, the size of the COLA for non-union employees can be more or less than 1.8 percent, depending on the employee’s performance evaluation.
Speaking of the difference between the automatic COLA for union employees and the standard COLA for everyone else, Selectman Matt Hart said, “Even though it’s [only] two-tenths of a percent, psychologically there is a difference, and it wouldn’t cost much to eliminate that.”
About half of the towns that Lunt surveyed give employees a 2 percent cost-of-living adjustment. Rockport and Kennebunkport give 3 percent. Belfast gives 1 percent and Bucksport gives no automatic cost-of-living raise.
The selectmen asked Lunt to recommend for their consideration any changes in employee benefits that he feels are warranted.