Va. city first responders oppose raising mandatory retirement age
Virginia's police chief wants to raise the retirement age, but survey results of about 1,000 public safety employees show first responders are against the idea
By Jane Harper
VIRGINIA BEACH, Va. — Virginia Beach Police Chief James Cervera has said he’d like to keep working past retirement age and wants to help others like him who’d prefer to stay on the job after they turn 65.
But the majority of the city’s police officers, sheriff’s deputies and firefighters think the mandatory retirement age for their departments should stay at 65, according to results of a recent city survey.
They also believe the rule should apply to everyone, including top-ranking officials, the survey showed.
The city emailed the questions to roughly 1,700 public safety employees last month after some council members expressed support for boosting the retirement age, in part because Cervera will turn 65 in April.
Cervera has been with the department for more than 40 years. He was appointed chief in 2010.
Nearly 1,000 employees responded to the survey. They also were invited to post comments, and more than 50 pages of remarks were included with the results.
Brian Luciano, president of the city’s Police Benevolent Association, said the council needs to carefully consider its decision.
“There’s a lot more at stake here than whether the chief should stay," he said. "This affects more than 1,000 employees in public safety, and I think their voices need to be heard.”
Eighty-three percent of law enforcement officers who responded said they think the required retirement age should stay at 65. Only 8% support raising it to 70, and 7% thought 67 was an appropriate age. Another 1% want other ages to be considered. The group included police officers and sheriff’s deputies.
Of the firefighters’ group — which included paramedics and emergency medical technicians — 91% think the maximum age should stay at 65. Three percent want to hike it to 70, and 6% support other ages.
The percentage of respondents who believe the retirement age should be the same for everyone, regardless of rank or position, was also high: 88% of law enforcement officers and 81% of firefighters said they thought it should be consistent for all.
At a recent City Council briefing, members discussed the possibility of setting the maximum age at 67 or 70 as well as the ramifications of the decision. The possibility of higher healthcare costs and workers’ compensation claims that might come with an older workforce were among the concerns expressed.
Leaders of local police and firefighters’ organizations said their members have been vocal in their opposition to the proposal.
“I haven’t found one person who supports the change,” said Max Gonano, president of Virginia Beach Professional Firefighters. “It really looks like this is geared toward one individual, and when you change something for one person, you’re opening up a whole other can of worms.”
In fact, many respondents said they’d like to be able to retire earlier than they’re currently allowed. They have to be at least 50 years old and have a minimum of 25 years of service to be eligible for retirement benefits under the current rules. Many respondents believe they should be able to collect after 20 years, as is the case in the military.
“Sixty-five for a police officer or firefighter already is extreme,” said Rich Cheatam, president of the Virginia Beach Organization for Police Supervisors, which represents officers ranked sergeant or above. “Fifty to 55 is generally when most officers start to retire.”
There are currently only a handful of public safety employees in the city who are nearing mandatory retirement, according to information provided at a recent council briefing.
Asked in the survey how likely they were to stay on the job past the age of 65 if allowed, 85% of the law enforcement officers and 89% of the firefighters said it was unlikely.
Among the factors that respondents said need to be considered are the physical aspects of the job as well as making sure there are enough advancement opportunities for younger employees.
Gonano, president of the firefighters’ group, said in a letter he sent to council members that he believes there is a risk of “stagnation in the ranks” if they increase the retirement age.
“Not everyone always knows when it’s time to retire, and sometimes certain positions are better held by someone who is closer to their prime working years,” Gonano wrote. “Police work and firefighting are very physical jobs. The lives of fellow public safety employees and the public depend on these men and women being physically capable of performing.”
All employees — including those in supervisory roles — need to be physically and mentally prepared to jump into action when needed, he said.
The city first set the retirement age for public safety employees at 65 in 1965, City Attorney Mark Stiles told council members. It was raised to 70 in 1983, and lowered back to 65 four years later. Both of those later two changes were believed to be in response to court decisions or laws, he said. In 2015, Sheriff Ken Stolle successfully persuaded the council to raise it to 70 for his office, but recently asked to have it brought back down to 65.
City staff checked with 28 other municipalities and states to see what age restrictions they had. Of them, seven had no age requirement, four-set it at 70, and 17 put it somewhere between 55 and 65. The national average is 62.5, the research showed.
Federal law enforcement officers have one of the lowest required retirement ages, which is 57. Virginia state police troopers have one of the highest at 70 years and six months.
At the time that Cervera first suggested raising the age limit, the sheriff’s deputies were still allowed to work until 70 and he wanted the same for his officers. But then Stolle asked to have it lowered.
Cervera said the proposed hike is not about him. He has two employees who are about to turn 65 and want to keep working, as well as some others who are nearing the limit, he said. The department has a high number of vacancies and has had trouble recruiting new officers, he said, so it doesn’t make sense to force out ones who want to stay.
“We have people who say they want to keep working, they want to serve their community,” Cervera said. “And you’re going to say that they can’t simply because of an age? That’s not right."
©2019 The Virginian-Pilot (Norfolk, Va.)