Tuesday is an important day for voters and residents living in Joplin. On Tuesday, voters will decide on the future stability and direction of police and fire protection. Proposition B is a one-half cent sales tax for a period of not more than 12 years that can only be used for the police and fire retirement fund. That is worth repeating — the funds can only be used for police officer and firefighter retirement.
Many voters may be wondering why that funding is important.
A combination of contributions from individual police officers and firefighters along with revenue from the Joplin general revenue fund is set aside for retiring police and firefighters. In the mid-1990s, a nationwide recession caused the value of investments used to support the pension fund to drop dramatically.
In 2000, the city made changes to the fund requiring police officers and firefighters to contribute significantly more of their pay into the fund. The city also contributed more from general revenue. At the time it was hoped those changes would allow the fund to become solid. Unfortunately, that did not happen.
Today, 19 years later, the fund sits at less than 65% of what will be needed. Standard & Poor’s bond rating service recently dropped Joplin’s bond rating from A+ to AA- as the result of Joplin’s liability from the underfunded pension plan.
Fact is, the city of Joplin is obligated to pay a retirement to its police and fire employees, who do not receive Social Security benefits as do many other Joplin residents. That means one way or another Joplin residents are going to have to make the retirement fund whole. We are going to pay. That much is beyond debate.
That leads us to Tuesday and Proposition B, which was created over many months of discussion by city staff, city council, police and fire commanders and police and fire association members. Those association members voted 98% to adopt Prop B, and over the past two months they have gone door to door on their own time to distribute information about Prop B and answer resident questions. They are doing so because they know Prop B will solve the retirement and employee retention problem.
If passed, Prop B will close the existing city-administered retirement fund to new employees. It will provide current police and fire employees a choice of staying in the current fund or moving to the Missouri Local Government Employees Retirement System. LAGERS offers a number of benefits and flexibility the city plan cannot offer. The passage of Prop B has additional benefits. It will allow an immediate 10% increase in take-home pay through contribution reduction for those moving to LAGERS. Employees moving to LAGERS will see improved retirement benefits, such as cost of living adjustments during retirement.
Passage of Prop B helps to ensure funding for those employees who remain in the city-administered plan. Passage will improve the city’s financial sustainability and result in long-term reduction of general revenue fund spending.
Proposition B also addresses another problem Joplin has experienced up through today: retention of highly trained and experienced police officers and firefighters. It is a fact beyond dispute that Joplin’s police and firefighter staffing is well below the needed levels to provide the top-notch public safety force the departments work hard to achieve and that the residents want to have. It’s beyond debate that the cause of our experienced officers and firefighters leaving Joplin is better pay and retirement in other regional communities. Prop B will not only address that problem but overcome the issue by allowing Joplin to attract experienced officers from elsewhere.
What happens if Joplin voters say no?
The answer is we still pay. It is estimated that over the next 20 years Joplin residents will pay up to $20 million more than what the one-half cent sales tax will generate over the next 12 years. Not only will we pay more, but our retention and understaffing problem will continue. Some voters have said they disagree with decisions made by city councils in the past. While all cities make mistakes, dwelling on those issues will not solve the current problem — Prop B will solve the problem.
It is true no one is eager to pay more in tax. It is also true no one wants a fire to invade their home or an unwanted person to break into our private lives. If and when those things happen, who do we want to respond?
Our choice is a newly hired and understaffed officer or firefighter, or a highly motivated, highly trained public safety officer. On Nov. 5, Joplin voters will make that choice. Vote yes on Prop B.
Ted Easley, Joplin, is a member of Half-Cent Sales Tax Citizens Task Force.