Fulton County Sheriff Richard Giardino on Thursday issued a news release asking for the public, and the county Board of Supervisors, to support his proposal to cut the number of years of service required for sheriff’s deputies to retire with full pension to 20, down from the current 25, at a cost to county taxpayers of $880,000.
In his news release, Giardino said that since 2016 his department has lost 17 deputies to transfers to other law enforcement agencies, including the city police departments in Johnstown, Gloversville and Amsterdam, all of which have 20-year pension plans.
“We have a serious problem retaining well-trained deputies who leave to other agencies for more money, better benefits and a shorter pension system,” Giardino wrote. “As the elected sheriff of Fulton County I bring this critical issue forward and seek public support before making a formal recommendation to the Fulton County Board of Supervisors.”
Giardino’s plea to the public for support comes a little more than two months before Fulton County’s labor contract with the Deputy Sheriff’s Police Benevolent Association is set to expire on Dec. 31.
Northampton Supervisor James Groff, himself a retired county sheriff’s deputy and former PBA president, said he’s not against shortening the number of years required for deputies to collect a pension, but he thinks changing pension benefits should be a part of the county’s collective bargaining process.
“The sheriff is supposed to be a co-employer with the board, but apparently he’s not. He’s negotiating for the union,” Groff said. “That’s basically what’s happening here.”
Giardino said he’s brought the issue of deputy retention to the supervisors’ Public Safety Committee for years without making much traction.
“I can speak up now, because when you’re in negotiations there’s usually a gag order,” Giardino said. “This is the window where I have the opportunity to mention a very important issue, to raise public awareness and see if the public will back a 20-year plan.”
In his news release Giardino listed the seven county sheriff’s departments in New York state that have 20-year pension plans: Cayuga (80,000 residents), Columbia (58,000 residents), Delaware (48,000 residents), Genesee (56,800 residents), Livingston (65,000 residents), Oswego (62,000 residents) and Schuyler (18,000 residents).
However, adjacent sheriff’s departments in Montgomery and Saratoga counties both have 25-year pension plans, as does Schenectady and Albany.
One reason many counties may be reluctant to change the years of service requirement for sheriff’s deputies is the upfront cost of doing so. Reducing the years required will require additional money to cover the county’s pension liability for deputies who can now retire five years earlier than before.
Giardino said he obtained estimates from the New York State Retirement Office that converting from a 25-year pension for deputies to a 20-year pension would cost a lump sum “catch-up” payment of $880,000, or the county could pay $200,000 annual payments for five years or $116,000 payments every year for 10 years. Those payments would be in addition to a 20-year pension costing $180,000 more every year than what Fulton County is currently paying for its deputies’ pension plans.
County Personnel Director Terri Souza on Thursday said the pension cost estimates in Giardino’s news release are correct.
“That’s what the retirement system is saying the county would owe to bring those current employees into that 20-year plan,” she said.
Souza said she did not have an exact figure for how much Fulton County paid into the state pension system for sheriff’s deputies for 2021 because the annual pension payments for sheriff’s deputies and corrections officers are listed together as one total for the county’s budget. She said newly hired sheriff’s deputies without previous experience begin at “Tier 6” of the state pension system, which requires a minimum annual contribution from the deputies of 3% of their salaries, which increases to 3.5% and 4% upon reaching higher levels of salary. She said deputies who started working between Sept. 1, 1983 and Dec. 31, 2009 are part of “Tier 4,” which only required a 3% contribution for 10 years and no contribution after that.
Giardino said his numbers show Fulton County paid $358,000 into the state pension plan for deputies in 2021, but some of that money includes corrections officers who choose to participate in the deputies’ retirement system. He said most of the county’s 58 corrections officers are part of another $500,000 payment the county makes toward their state pensions.
Giardino argued that on average, the 17 deputies who transferred out of his department since 2016 had about three years of experience working for Fulton County. He estimates the county spent $2 million on training, background checks and salary and benefits for those 17 officers who then took their experience to other departments.
He said the police departments in Gloversville and Johnstown have significantly better benefits for their employees than the Sheriff’s Department, which is why so many transfer out. He said in Gloversville the police contract pays 75% of an officer’s higher education tuition related to policing, a fact recently highlighted during Gloversville’s city budget hearings when the council discovered the city is likely obligated to pay approximately $90,000 toward Police Capt. Mike Garavelli’s PhD program over a three-year period.
“Our buyback is if you’ve got a junior college degree you get $250, if you have a four-year degree you get $450, and we want to encourage people with two- and four-year degrees to become police officers, and that’s not really a big incentive,” he said.
Giardino pointed out that in the city of Johnstown if a police officer does not use the city’s health insurance plan he can receive a $6,000 annual payment instead, while sheriff’s deputies in Fulton County only get $750 for not using their health insurance, allowing the county to save as much as $15,000 annually.
Giardino said he believes the Board of Supervisors at least partially built the county’s $20 million fund balance from having cut 13 sheriff’s deputy positions since 2000. He said there are currently 27 full-time law enforcement positions in his department, not counting himself and the undersheriff: 1 captain, 6 sergeants, 3 corporals, 4 investigators and 13 road patrol deputy sheriffs.
“Eight of those 27 can retire within the next 16 months,” Giardino wrote in his news release.
Giardino said Fulton County needs more sheriff’s deputies to cover the county’s 500 square miles. He acknowledges the 20-year pension plan would enable an additional two deputies to be eligible to retire immediately and would increase the cost of new hires, but he said he believes it would be worth it to allow for the retention of more experienced officers and would lower the county’s liability costs for mistakes and other problems.
Fifth Ward Supervisor Greg Young said he mostly agrees with Giardino’s plan. He said he thinks Giardino’s decision to go public with the debate over the 20-year plan may harness public opinion on the side of changing the pension plan to 20 years. He said the change would likely improve law enforcement in Fulton County.