(Opinion) Sounding the alarm on New Hampshire’s public safety
Retention of first responders has reached catastrophic levels
The inability to retain qualified firefighters, EMTs, dispatchers, police and correctional officers has created a disastrous outlook for the future of public safety in New Hampshire.
Professions once highly sought after in a competitive market are now taking a back seat to private sector jobs that offer higher pay and better benefits. Historically speaking, public sector employees have been drawn to these professions for the retirement and benefits packages offered, in spite of the fact that lower wages put them at a disadvantage in a surging economy. A trade-off that was fair and equitable until it wasn’t.
In 2011, the Legislature made monumental changes to the retirement system, forever changing what it means to be a public employee here in New Hampshire. Now, first responders are finding it increasingly difficult to dedicate their lives to professions that often have a net negative impact on their health, safety and work-life balance in exchange for low pay and a reduced retirement. Now, some changes that were made to shore up the system are coming home to roost, exacerbating the problem.
The truth is that a flawed statutory funding methodology from 1991 to 2007 led to the long-term under-collection of employer contributions. This policy caused legislators to make more than a hundred modifications to RSA 100-A to ensure that the retirement system remained solvent.
Where it gets complicated is that many of these changes became retroactive, impacting employees with up to 10 years of employment at the time changes were made. Those caught up in this transition had their benefits dramatically altered from the terms they were hired under, resulting in a substantial lack of faith in the system and causing many to question their desire to remain in the public sector.
However, through all of this, there has always remained hope that policymakers would right the ship. House Bill 436 is that hope.
Sponsored by Rep. Kevin Pratt, R-Raymond, House Bill 436 would restore most of the benefits to those who had them removed in 2011 by calling for a 10-year transition, allowing them to retire under the same terms they agreed to upon hire. This bill encourages those poised to leave their career in public safety to remain on the job in order to collect the benefits they were promised in the first place.
Currently, those negatively impacted in 2011 have been on the job between 11 and 21 years. Generally speaking, these are your senior members, ranking officers and administrative personnel — formal and informal leaders that no profession can afford to lose. As a smaller subset of this group is nearing retirement, their pension calculations have proven to be drastically different from what they anticipated, causing others within this group to look toward career alternatives. This trend has threatened our ability to retain the 1,600 members impacted by this bill and thousands of others in public safety watching from the sidelines.
A 2019 National Institute on Retirement Security survey showed that more than 73 percent of state and local employees would leave their jobs if their pension benefits were cut. If New Hampshire lost 73 percent of its firefighters, EMTs, dispatchers, police and correctional officers, the impact on public safety in the Granite State would most certainly be catastrophic.
The New Hampshire House voted to pass HB 436 in true bipartisan fashion. More than 280 representatives voted in the affirmative, proving that policymakers recognize the retention crisis before them and are eager to take action. While this piece of legislation has a long way to go to reach the governor’s desk, we are confident that our legislators will do what’s best for public safety and continue to support those that keep Granite State communities safe by passing House Bill 436.
Brian Ryll of Hampton is president of the Professional Fire Fighters of NH, Michael Geha of Windham is president of the NH Police Association, Frank Campo of Stratham is president of the NH Troopers Association and Seifu Ragassa of Gilford is president of the NH Probation and Parole Officers Command Staff Association.