A disagreement between City Hall and the Municipal Police Employees' Retirement System recently reached new heights, and the fallout means Baton Rouge police officers hired since 2000 now cannot successfully apply for retirement benefits once promised to them.
The Municipal Police Employees' Retirement System, MPERS, has spent years fighting a policy that allows Baton Rouge police officers to apply overtime payments toward their retirement calculations. Officers who pad their salaries by working overtime can receive higher annual retirement payments than they might have otherwise.
But MPERS last month drew a line in the sand that affects any employee hired since 2000 who is now trying to retire. The change also could have ramifications for those already drawing retirement checks.
The retirement system cites state law that says they cannot use overtime contributions to determine retirement compensations.
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MPERS Executive Director and General Counsel Ben Huxen said Wednesday that Baton Rouge officers hired since 2000 who apply through the MPERS board for retirement will have their application rejected and will not receive benefits. Those already receiving checks from MPERS have received letters saying the amount is subject to change once MPERS determines how much overtime was counted toward their retirement.
Mayor-President Sharon Weston Broome sent a letter Wednesday to Metro Council members that referenced the MPERS dispute. She wrote that the agreement from 2000 between the city-parish and MPERS specified that "mandatory overtime" would be counted toward retirement compensation.
"To date, I am not aware of any employee or their surviving spouse having been denied access to their retirement benefit," Broome wrote. "However, I can assure all of you that if circumstances change, this office stands behind the original agreement and will take the necessary steps it can to protect the interests of the city-parish and its valued law enforcement employees."
City-parish officials declined further comment, citing "pending or anticipated litigation." The Baton Rouge Police Department referred comment about the issue to their union.
Baton Rouge Police Union President Sgt. C. Bryan Taylor described the move from MPERS as a bluff.
"They are not going to stop payment to any of our members, nor will they reject an application for retirement," he said. "That's when we will then get involved. They may be in peaceful litigation with the city-parish but they are not going to screw over a member of the union of police."
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Taylor said officers deserve to be compensated in their retirement for the overtime that they worked.
The city-parish started using MPERS as its retirement system for police in 2000, and officers hired before then are excluded from the current controversy. But Huxen said Baton Rouge is the only municipality MPERS works with that uses overtime to calculate retirement.
Baton Rouge Metro Councilwoman Donna Collins-Lewis asked Wednesday why Baton Rouge would be the only municipality counting police overtime toward retirement. She said police officers can potentially make more money in overtime than their salaries, and questioned whether the city-parish should be on the hook to match overtime money in retirement contributions.
"I can understand why they're asking that," she said about MPERS.
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Huxen sent a warning letter to Baton Rouge officials in late December about taking action, and said he never received a response. He said MPERS needs City Hall to break down salaries and overtime contributions so that the retirement system employees can properly calculate how much retirement pay officers should earn.
Huxen said no potential applicants for retirement have come before the MPERS board since the change has been made. He said that the city-parish is also paying too much contribution money toward officers' retirement because they are matching the inflated, overtime figures.
"If MPERS is correct that these contributions shouldn't be paid, the city is basically wasting money that otherwise could have been used for salary increases, which actually would count toward retirement," Huxen said. "That's concerning."
Baton Rouge Councilmen Buddy Amoroso and Matt Watson both firmly took the side of the city-parish and the BPRD union. Amoroso said the agreement between MPERS and the city-parish from 2000 may have been more of a "gentleman's agreement" rather than written in stone, but that MPERS should still honor it. He said the retirement system has been paying out retirements based on overtime for 17 years, and that "it would be hard to turn that clock back."
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Watson said MPERS should audit other municipalities that claim not to be including overtime payments in their retirement calculations.
The Advocate reported in 2014 on BRPD's practice of drawing overtime and using the amounts toward retirement. At the time, it was particularly common for officers to work overtime on a DWI task force targeting drunk drivers and direct traffic during football games at LSU and Southern University.
Roughly a third of Baton Rouge police increased their salaries by at least 20 percent from overtime as of 2014. And The Advocate's review then found that 10 percent of officers increased their salary by 40 percent or more thanks to overtime duty. Police retirees with at least 25 years of service usually receive retirement checks between 75 percent and 100 percent of the average of their highest earning years, The Advocate reported in 2014.
MPERS sued the city in 2016 about the overtime disagreements, and had previously sued over similar issues. But Huxen said the city-parish's response was that MPERS needed to individually sue each employee in the system, which is "too costly and unwieldy."
"This is an ongoing lawsuit that every once in a while, MPERS kicks the hornet's nest," Watson said.