This Labor Day weekend, it's time to talk frankly about the workers who carry out the most basic and essential work of government: police and fire employees.
It's time — way past time, really — to assure these workers that the retirement system they've paid into and counted on will be there when their service is over.
Right now, there is not enough money in the pension fund to pay the benefits already promised to current and former workers.
A big share of the fix must come from Frankfort where, incredibly, bills affecting only the Lexington police and fire pensions policies regularly become law. Those policies are far more generous than those of the state police and other local forces.
But there's work that Lexington's mayor, council, police and fire chiefs can do to restore both the system's credibility and its solvency by reining in the extraordinary rate of disability pensions.
Depending on who you talk to, we're in this mess because: the city hasn't paid its share into the fund each year; collective bargaining contracts pumped up salaries, and with them the cost of pensions; disability rules allow employees to retire too early; state law defines the structure of our system, most of the benefits and the makeup of the board that oversees the pension fund and legislators have consistently enriched benefits.
In truth, the answer is all of the above.
The politics of this are complex. Police and fire workers traditionally have strong political clout. Their endorsements mean a lot to voters and their disciplined membership can deliver votes, contributions and campaign workers. Few elected officials want to cross them.
That's particularly true for legislators who don't answer to Lexington taxpayers but do hear from their local public-safety workers.
Despite the heavy hand of state law on our budget, some things can be done locally.
Disability pensions have been a troubling aspect of the pension fund's problems. They're an essential safety net for public-safety workers who do dangerous jobs.
But we have too many disability pensioners working full time elsewhere and generally leading active lives.
Our departments require that every Lexington cop and fire worker must be physically fit for the most physically demanding job. Our rules also allow only one year for an injured police or fire worker to return to 100-percent physical fitness.
Tommy Puckett, a longtime member of the pension board and retired policeman, wants the departments to write detailed descriptions, including physical requirements, for the whole range of jobs.
Experienced, well-trained workers who aren't able to be on the front line could remain on the forces and continue to pay into the retirement system, rather than draw from it.
Puckett also says that a host of insurance and treatment delays can easily stretch out for well over a year so extending recovery time, when appropriate, would also reduce disability retirements.
But disability is only part of the problem.
Without legislative changes, Lexington's police and fire pension fund will fall short unless much higher local taxes, drastic cuts to other city services or severe cuts in pensions are enacted — or some unpleasant combination of the three.
These are the wages of political expediency. Legislators — led by our own — have gone along with some constituencies without considering the impact on Lexington's budget.
Taxpayers must use their votes to demand change from their representatives.