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Public Safety, Pension Reformists Battle Over Complex Phoenix Proposition

The debate of over Prop. 487 has galvanized public safety employees, who say it could affect their benefits. But supporters say that's untrue. Above, Fire Captain Greg Hawks, left, and firefighter P.J. Dean go door to door to ask people to vote "no."
(Photo by Stina Sieg - KJZZ)
The debate of over Prop. 487 has galvanized public safety employees, who say it could affect their benefits. But supporters say that's untrue. Above, Fire Captain Greg Hawks, left, and firefighter P.J. Dean go door to door to ask people to vote "no."

As the sun set on a recent weekday evening, a group of firefighters were navigating through a North Phoenix neighborhood. They were going door to door, always delivering a similar pitch.

“I’d like to tell you that we’re sweepstakes winners announcing you’re winning a gazillion dollars,” Phoenix Fire Captain Greg Hawks said when a young father opened the door. “But we’re actually Phoenix firefighters, and we’re walking in opposition to Proposition 487.”

That’s because Hawks believes this ballot measure would not just change city pensions, but actually strip him and his colleagues of benefits. Firefighter and police groups say the initiative is written in such a convoluted way, it could prohibit the city from contributing money to their pensions.

And that could potentially take away their death benefits, said fellow firefighter P.J. Dean, since those are funded by their pensions.

“If you remove those benefits from the equation, and take that away from us, you know, I can’t with a clean conscience put myself at risk to save other people when I know my family isn’t going to be supported,” Dean said. “I just can’t leave them stranded like that.”

Even if there’s a chance that could happen, he thinks this initiative is too big a risk to take.

But Phoenix City Councilman Sal DiCiccio is calling foul. He thinks that firefighters, along with their benefits, are being trotted out by opponents of Prop. 487 to manipulate the public.

“The death and disability is just a complete lie,” he said. “It’s not even close to being true.”

DiCiccio, who supports Prop. 487, insists it doesn’t affect city firefighters or police at all. That’s because they’re part of a statewide pension plan, and this measure is supposed to only affect new employees with the city of Phoenix pension plan.

“Everybody gets to keep what they’ve got at the city of Phoenix,” he said. “Everybody gets to keep everything that they’ve earned. Just going forward, new employees would have to be under a 401(k). It’s not that complicated.”

With these 401(k)-type plans, Phoenix employee payments during retirement would depend on how their investments do. Compare that to current pensions, where retirees get a fixed percentage of their salaries – for life. DiCiccio said Prop. 487 would also end the practice of spiking, as in employees inflating their salaries with things like unused vacation and sick leave in order to bump up their pension. Negotiations earlier this year dealt with some of those spiking issues, but not all.

When it comes to the public, Prop. 487 backers are trying to “confuse them, make them think this is a bad idea, without talking about the merits of pension reform that need to happen,” DiCiccio said. “You don’t have pension reform, you’re going to have higher costs.”

Pretty much everyone on both sides of this fight, agrees on that last point. But little else.

As Thom Reilly put it: “How do you determine who’s right, or who’s correct, or who’s misleading?”

Reilly is the director of ASU’s Morrison Institute For Public Policy, which is not taking a position on Prop 487. But it did host a citizen’s review of the initiative. For three days, ordinary people waded through the proposition’s complex language.

At the end of all that, results were mixed, and reflected two possibilities. The city says the most likely outcome of Prop. 487 is actually a cost of $345 million over the next 20 years. Legal experts who support the initiative point to another estimate from the city, a savings of more than $500 million. But that’s only if every aspect of the initiative stands in court, which city officials believe is unlikely.

“If it’s challenged, it will be up to courts,” Reilly said, “not to legal experts.”

The review also said it’s unclear what effect, if any, the measure would have on fire and police. They are mentioned in the ballot’s description and its preamble, but not at all in the body of the initiative’s text.

For Reilly, the bottom line is that the way public employees are compensated “probably needs a thinking,” he said, “because it’s too easy for elected officials to increase benefits, because the payout’s years later, long after they leave office.” 

And Reilly said that conversation is happening all across the country, as hefty pension bills are coming due. Here in Phoenix, he won’t guess what will happen on Election Day. But both sides are gearing up for a court fight.

Stina Sieg was a senior field correspondent at KJZZ from 2013 to 2018.