JACKSONVILLE, Fla. -- Financial problems in the city of Jacksonville are causing some police officers working for the Jacksonville Sheriff's Office to find work elsewhere.
Sheriff John Rutherford said the city has long had an excellent reputation and able to recruit excellent men and women for the police force, but he says he doesn't think he can say that anymore.
The sheriff's office has recently lost 51 officers who have moved on to other places to work, including other agencies in Florida. The FOP tells First Coast News that several highly trained SWAT team members have moved on to work in Colorado, North Carolina and South Carolina.
The reasons they are leaving are several.
One reason is fear of more layoffs in the department after 48 of the least senior officers were laid off last year. Another reason is the pay cuts the city imposed on police.
A big issue is also Mayor Alvin Brown's proposed pension reform, which calls for police to contribute 14% of their pay to the pension and capping benefits at a lower amount.
"All of this is creating a very uncertain future for these officers, and the ones that have a little time on are leaving because they want to go somewhere that has more structure and they want to know what their future is," Rutherford said. "They are protecting their families and I understand that."
FOP attorney Paul Daragjati said, "The officers feel that they are not being appreciated, as they should be and they have every right to feel that way,"
According to Daragjati, the mayor's pension plan is not like anything else in the state of Florida. He says when the city loses officers with seven to nine years of experience, they are not easily replaced.
Daragjati says the city made a pact to take care of officers with a pension years ago and when that pact is broken, he says you can end up with a police department like the one in New Orleans, with corruption and incompetence.
Sheriff Rutherford adds that replacing those officers costs $76,000 to train each one.
There has also been an increase in the number of officers signing up for the Deferred Retirement Option Program, or DROP as it is known. It allows officers to retire on paper and continue to work, then get a lump sum after five years in exchange for reduced annual payments.
There has been talk of ending that program so officers are signing up in higher numbers.
Forty-eight officers have signed up since October, so there are a number of officers who will retire much earlier than normal. That will further cost the department experienced officers.
Sheriff Rutherford said when he was at the training academy, he could look out over the class of new recruits and feel confident that most all of them would work for the Sheriff's Office for 20 to 30 years or more. But that is no longer the case.
Mayor Alvin Brown's office released this statement regarding pension reform.
"Let's be clear. My retirement reform plan will not affect the benefits of any former employees who have retired. It will not affect the benefits of any current employees who are already eligible for retirement. It will not modify any benefits that current employees have already earned.
"But I am committed to retirement reform because the current system is simply not sustainable. Over the last decade, the annual cost to taxpayers has increased by more than $100 million. The unfunded pension obligation has grown by more than $1 billion. The Police and Fire Pension Fund has received a F grade because it is so poorly funded.
"I am certainly sensitive to issues of recruitment and retention. But Jacksonville is not the only city dealing with this challenge. Anyone who looks around the state is going to find that communities across Florida are dealing with similar challenges and pursing similar reforms."
First Coast News