When I signed on to work as a government employee over 32 years ago, I did so because I wanted to take on a career in an honorable job, where hard work and selfless devotion was ultimately rewarded by a secure retirement. The pay as a probationary firefighter when I signed onto the job in 1982 was $10,386 a year, plus a small bonus for already possessing my Emergency Medical Technician certification. It wasn't much, but it was a seamless transition from high school to the workplace and I knew even then that it was an investment in a secure future.
I worked as much overtime as I could, because it was available and boosted my paycheck, not because of some evil desire to bilk the taxpayers of their hard-earned dollars. For Christmases I spent the bulk of them working for those who had families, or picking up an OT shift, or on both days of a weekend while my non-fire department friends were out partying, I covered shifts. As the years went on, while I had friends that were making a significant amount more than I, working in the private sector, I still maintained that if I kept my head down and nose to the grindstone, I could retire after 25 years of service as a young man, and still be able to move from there to perhaps a chief job somewhere, still not making a lot of money, but doing much better with the ability to use my retirement to offset the difference.
This isn't some new fad; public service workers have done it for years. Defined retirement benefits were the reward for all the years of being on duty for nights and weekends, missing out on children’s' ballgames or school plays. Not being there would be made up for in the future, we all reasoned. Just like those who serve careers in the military, "25 and out" was the advantage of having a public service career. I would work hard and sacrifice now, so that later I would reap my reward.
These days it is apparent there is no loyalty for serving others any longer. Not only do we have military members coming home to find reduced benefits and a lack of appreciation for their sacrifice, we in the public sector chose to take the lesser reward now to have a more secure future. We, of course, made the mistake of trusting the word of our elected officials and the taxpayers who desired these services. Now we discover our political leaders have found it okay to go back on their word regardless of what we were given in writing and mutually understood were the realities of the time. We upheld our end of the bargain and performed the work. In the meanwhile, they frittered away the money saved with no consideration for the eventuality. In fairy tales, the grasshopper paid dearly for his poor work ethic, while the ant survived on her strong work ethic. And I remind you, those are just fairy tales: fiction.
In Anne Arundel County, MD, for example, the Maryland Gazette this week included a guest column from retired police Sgt. Robert Tucker illustrating this exact issue. What's more is that the claims of retiree benefits being too much for the county to handle come, according to the article, to a constituency that is at the top of the list of the wealthiest counties in Maryland, and according to the 2012 United States Census, the 18th wealthiest county in America.
In 2012, we in South Carolina experienced the same kind of deception, being led to believe our system was solvent and thriving for many years, only to be told that major modifications were necessary in order to secure our future. Not that exempting people within five years of retirement would have been an issue, our elected officials (who, I might add, have a much cushier retirement program than you or I could ever imagine) said, no exceptions. The State newspaper reported this and yet there were responsible Republican AND Democratic officials who said we could at least work it out not to effect people already close to retirement.
I do apologize for lumping the responsible elected officials, Republican, Democratic, and Independent (among others) into this dysfunction we call governance, but since you serve with these individuals, we'd also ask that you police them for us, because it is apparent they heed only their own agenda. Because while corporate CEOs are happily pocketing millions of dollars for running their businesses into the ground, and those who populate the highest income brackets in the nation are shouldering not just a disproportionate, but a substantially less proportionate amount of the tax burden compared to the middle and upper middle class, it is hardly call what is considered "justice". I can concede that point, though. But when you tell me that you want me to work and in turn, you promise me that you will pay me in the end, regardless of the form of that payment- in cash or in a benefit- you fail to pay me, you are a criminal and a thief, and there is no debating the terminology.
Let's frame it in the manner in which some of these individuals can understand it: If I wanted a car, and you agreed to sell me a car, and I drove off the lot with it, used it for even just a year, then brought it back to you and said, "I'm not paying for it", I would bet you would expect me to be liable for the cost of the car. Makes sense.
If you sold me a home, and I lived in it for 25 years and then said, "I'm not paying for it", I'll bet I would be liable to you for the cost of the home. If I said to you, "Well, I'm sorry, I can't afford it," I'd also bet that you would think that to be unethical, illegal, and any other number of derogatory terms you could use to describe my actions. Agreed?
What is the difference? That now you have some sort of misgivings about the arrangement we had? "We can't afford it" is not the answer, especially when it was agreed upon when the deal was made, and the public servants lived up to their end of the deal. Yet the elected officials and managers seem to, like the fat cat CEOs, evade any responsibility for their malfeasance.
I continue to read from the Teabagger group of individuals (yes, I used the term and no, I don't care if it offends you) who frame the argument as being the unfair exploitation of the taxpayer by public employees, of creating another entitled class of people, without any consideration for the reality that if they were in the same situation, they would be screaming from the rooftops of the injustice. And it appalls me that many of these same individuals profess to be Christian and yet have no qualms about cutting off assistance to our most vulnerable populations, they espouse patriotism and yet fight to cut funding to better support the living standards of our troops, and in this case, are willing to smile and reap the benefits of safe and secure communities on the backs of public servants, but yank their benefits out from under them when the time comes to pay the bill. This isn't "fiscal responsibility"; that would be preventing the budgeting of items down the road that you can't afford. No, this is theft: You were provided a service for an agreed upon price, and now that the service has been provided, you are changing the terms of the agreement without our permission.
The Democrats can blame the Republicans and the Republicans the Democrats, but in the long run, it is we who permit them to take up space in an institution that is supposed to represent the best of our nation, state, and local community. We can all stand back and mumble our dissent, yet we continue to put people of questionable judgment and ethics into these roles though our inaction and our unwillingness to speak up. The injustice that is being heaped upon certain groups right now, as in this case, is just evidence of how little they regard their word and their responsibility. If we don't hold them accountable, then it is we who at fault.
Contact your elected officials and spread the message to others as well. Unless we tell them what we expect and hold them to their promises, we will all lose in the end. There are no easy solutions. Changing the benefits for the future is one thing, but changing the way in which they are paid out, or limiting the individual's ability to have a livelihood in the same business after they retire is a different story. When you tell someone that something will be the terms of a deal and go back on it later, your word is worth nothing to me anymore. I hope that soon we can choose to elect some people with integrity, because it seems like there are a lot in office who lack that these days, regardless of party affiliation.