LIHU‘E — In February, the Mayor’s Office ordered the Kaua‘i Fire Department to suspend most overtime and nonessential expenditures to curb pension spiking, which has penalized the county consistently over the last few years.
Anywhere between six to eight KFD employees are expected to retire at the end of this year, resulting in about $1.1 million to $1.6 million in pension payments, depending on how many actually retire.
KFD Assistant Chief Solomon Kanoho explained that this number is in part due to higher-ranking personnel retiring, regular overtime and rank-for-rank collective bargaining with the Hawai‘i Firefighters Association.
KFD Chief Steven Goble, who started in July, ensured the County Council that extra-duty assignments were being better-managed through rotation, rather than being offered to the most-senior employees.
“A lot of times what we were seeing these folks as they approach their retirement, they were the ones that were first in line for a lot of these extra-duty assignments,” Goble said.
This year, the department began excluding opportunities, like community risk-reduction programs and training, from higher-ranking employees.
“Spiking” is when employees maximize their overtime as they near retirement, usually in the last few years of employment, to raise their average annual income. Many pensions are based on employees’ total earnings for the last three years before they retire. So, extra overtime can increase the base of pension payments.
The Employee Retirement System is about $21.75 million, over 10% of the county’s budget, council Vice Chair Ross Kagawa pointed out.
In 2018, the KFD incurred $2,248,560 in excess pension costs for 13 retirees. “That’s fishy. Something’s wrong,” Kagawa said.
From 2015 through 2017, Kanoho admitted there was “abuse to the system.”
Councilmember Luke Evslin pointed out that since he joined the council in 2018, he’s heard KFD say they’ve implemented measures to cut back, but it seems like they only started recently.
Kanoho said there have been increased steps taken at the start of this year, most notably to how KFD goes about re-certifying firefighters and training.
Since measures started so recently and the ERS takes into account the last three years of service, there will be a lag time before numbers will decrease.
“The things that we could control, we have put measures on there,” Kanoho said. But, when it comes to altering or touching collective-bargaining agreement which covers holiday pay and rank-for-rank overtime pay, “I know that’s going to lead to pushback from the union.”
Council Chair Arryl Kaneshiro noted that when he voted in opposition to the two-year, collective-bargaining agreement with a 2% increase across the board last year, he faced backlash.
“You look at all the spikes, and by far fire is the highest spikers,” Kaneshiro said. “There is not one employee in the whole county that even reaches the lowest fire employee that spiked. I mean, how is that fair?”
Goble expressed that the collective-bargaining agreements tie the department’s hands, but they are moving in the direction the council wants to see.
Kagawa, who called for this discussion, appreciated the accountability the KFD had on the issue, thanking and welcoming Goble to the island.
“We represent our county employees, but our greater responsibility is to our citizens and innocent taxpayers that rely on us to make wise decisions,” he said.
“Although it may be uncomfortable sometimes, and many of the firefighters families and I don’t want go down this road, we have a greater responsibility when elected to the people of Kaua‘i to eliminate unnecessary spending.”
Sabrina Bodon, public safety and government reporter, can be reached at 245-0441 or firstname.lastname@example.org.