Northfield Assistant Fire Chief Tom Nelson stopped by my corner office at GBM yesterday. We mostly argued, hence the scowls in the left photo. (Feel free to sort through the 180+ comments to my blog post to find my criticisms of the Northfield Fire Department. More to come?)
But one thing we did agree on (hence the smiles in the right photo) was that the two versions of the Northfield News stories about the firefighters’ pension contained some misleading information. In the March 6 version, Northfield firefighters: paid or volunteers?, reporter Suzy Rook wrote:
According to a state auditor’s report for 2009, the city’s firefighters, who also serve the Northfield Rural Fire District, have $7,500 apiece placed in the fund annually;
In the sidebar:
$7,500 — Northfield’s annual pension contribution per firefighter
After the March 6 story appeared, Tom’s email to me and Suzy included this:
Northfield Fire Relief is presently at $7500/yr of service. This is not to be confused with “The City pays each member $7500/year” as was stated in the Northfield News e-edition last week. The impact on the annual budget is only the Municipal Contribution amount. For this year, the impact is slightly more than $900/fire fighter.
Likewise, in the comment thread attached to the March 6 story, firefighter Aramis Wells argued with her about this issue. But to no avail, as this week’s March 13 version, Northfield’s firefighter wages, pensions among highest in state, contained the same text and sidebar.
Individual firefighter pension obligations DO NOT cost the City of Northfield/taxpayers $7,500/year, as the Northfield News’ stories indicate.
Rather, if they stay on the job for 20 years or more (and past the age of 50), the pension fund pays them $7,500 per year of service. Big difference.
The amount in the fund fluctuates with the stock market and so the City’s annual contribution to the fund fluctuates. Back in 2008, the City contributed nearly $100,000 to the fund. In 2009 it was half that. This year, Tom says it’ll be about $29,000.
I think the City of Northfield and we citizens get a good deal with this arrangement because the pension encourages firefighters to stay on the job. Lack of turnover is generally a good thing when it comes to firefighting and I think we’re better served by having so many firefighters with so many years of experience.
But we need not worry too much that the current turmoil with the City and the Northfield Fire Department will cause many firefighters to quit. Fire Chief Gerry Franek’s attorney David Hvistendahl, Northfield Area Rural Fire District administrator Jerry Anderson and others are wrong to, um, fan these flames.
The firefighters get a good deal, too. If they stick with it for 20 years, they get a decent lump sum payout of $150,000. A few are going get twice that as they been on the job for nearly 40 years. Plus, they have an interesting and challenging part-time job in which they get to make a real difference in people’s lives, contribute measurably in the community’s quality of life, and earn our respect for doing so. Not many $21/hr part-time jobs offer all this.
I’m glad the Northfield News did the story because it has helped raise awareness of the issue. But I think they owe it to the firefighters and to the citizens to run a correction.