Dan Sparks: Securing firm financial footing for Austin firefighters

Published 8:58 am Saturday, February 2, 2019

One of my priorities for the 2019 Legislative Session is finishing the work necessary for Austin’s volunteer firefighters and their pensions. These selfless volunteer firefighters forego pay altogether, but they are rewarded with a pension upon retirement. However, through no fault of their own, circumstances have put this pension in jeopardy. Despite our efforts to pass a fix in recent years, 11th hour changes have prevented us from passing a permanent fix. This year, I am confident we will get what is necessary done to ensure these public servants have what is deserved.

District 27 Sen. Dan Sparks, DFL-Austin

The City of Austin has a combination fire department, consisting of both paid firefighters as well as volunteers. Prior to 2013, legislation existed allowed the city to allocate state aid it received for fire services between the volunteer firefighters and paid firefighters plan. However, the legislation allowing it to occur was repealed, though Austin continued to operate how they had. After a state auditor report, it was revealed that the city owed the volunteer firefighter’s pension fund for several years’ worth of state aid that had been paid to PERA-P&F – a sum totaling $214,650. This debt was waived in last year’s pension bill. However, in the meantime, the city had missed out on an additional $129,093.40 from the state to contribute to the firefighter’s pension.

The issue involved with the pension fund was a mix-up in how the volunteer firefighters and paid firefighter pension accounts were funded and comes from no maliciousness but instead a simple but costly issue. Thankfully, we have a permanent solution that will secure the state funding required for the pension, without forcing the city to find the money.

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Our solution will fix the mistake in state law and secure the funding necessary for the firefighter’s pension. It permits Austin to allocate a portion of fire state aid to pay employer contributions on behalf of firefighters covered by the Public Employee Retirement Association Police & Fire Plan rather than pay the full amount to the Volunteer Fire Relief Association (VFRA) as required under current statute.

A secured pension is vital to the financial health and stability of our firefighters and is crucial to budget stability for the city of Austin. Finding a solution for this need only came about through the commitment of partners at the local and state level. I want to thank the firefighters, city officials, and state partners who have prioritized finding a permanent fix that works for all parties. I’m confident that we will get this permanent fix in place this year.

This legislation shows the importance of working together with partners in identifying a problem, finding ways to address it, and then crafting a solution that can work. As the session heats up, I ask you to reach out to my office with your thoughts, concerns, and questions about what we should be working on as we craft a budget to fund essential state services over the next two years. I look forward to hearing from you, and it is an honor to continue to serve as your state senator.