City can't afford police benefit demands

Lexington police union president Mike Sweeney might have thought he was standing strong for his members when he told a legislative committee that the city's financial plight is "not my problem, not my concern."

But Sweeney's demands — for full health care benefits for the spouses and children of police and fire retirees, at a possible cost of almost $3 million a year — will backfire if working police and firefighters have to be laid off to sweeten benefits for retirees.

Like many governments, Lexington is struggling to meet its existing pension obligations and last year borrowed $100 million to shore up the police and fire pension fund, which is still running an unfunded liability of more than $200 million.

The city expects an $11 million to $16 million shortfall in its operating budget this year.

Given all that, going to the legislature to grab money the city doesn't have could also backfire on the union by offending the taxpaying public.

And it's not going to win any points with Mayor Jim Gray and the Urban County Council, whom the police and fire pensioners need to keep chipping away at the unfunded liability in the retirement fund.

Under a strange setup dating to the Urban County merger, the General Assembly makes all the decisions about Lexington's police and fire retirement benefits, while the local government and taxpayers have to pay for them.

One of the cost-drivers in Lexington's system is a disability policy that pushes police and firefighters into retirement at relatively early ages because of minor injuries. The legislature has refused to reform the policies, even though they are unsustainable.

In this session, Sen. Tom Buford, R-Nicholasville, who represents a sliver of Fayette County, is sponsoring a bill that would extend city-paid health coverage to spouses and dependent children of retired police officers and firefighters.

The city estimates this would cost from $1.2 million to $2.9 million annually. The city now provides the retirees with full medical coverage and lets them buy into the city's health insurance plan to cover their spouses and kids.

Sweeney spoke as the bill got its first hearing Tuesday before a committee chaired by Buford.

Representatives of Lexington's firefighters were conspicuously absent, which was interpreted as a sign that they are wisely withholding support from this bill. The committee didn't vote, which we hope means the measure is dead.

Gray, who was endorsed by both police and fire unions, has promised to work openly with them on the pension under-funding and other problems.

If the police union wants a good working relationship with the mayor it helped elect, this was a weird way to start.