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City clash over fire, police retiree benefits

March 3, 2011 12:00:00 AM PST
A battle is brewing between L.A. Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa and retired firefighters and police officers, who got a boost in pension health benefits Thursday.

But the mayor is fighting the increase, which he says is half of the $350-million budget shortfall.

The retirees are willing to take this fight to the courts.

Mayor Villaraigosa was welcomed Thursday at a Hollywood event to honor firefighters. But he is challenging increases to their pension and health benefits.

"We can't sustain this level of pension benefits. It's just not in the cards for us right now," said Villaraigosa.

The police and firefighters pension board heard from members Thursday, who said they need more money to pay for health care.

"I'm sorry that things are tough for other people. I'm sorry that some people's pension funds are down. I'm sorry that some people's benefits aren't as good," said Ken Buzzell, director of the Los Angeles Retired Fire and Police Association.

The board voted five to four to increase health benefits by 7 percent.

"One place that they shouldn't try to save a few more dollars is by breaking that deal that they made with police officers, paramedics and firefighters who retired having earned a level of medical care in retirement. Just don't take that away from them now," said Pat McOsker, president of United Firefighters of Los Angeles City.

Los Angeles Fire and Police Pensions Board President Dean Hansell doesn't think the city and taxpayers can afford it.

"I voted no on it," said Hansell. "The city has tremendous expenses right now. It's only getting worse."

And the fighting has just begun. The mayor says he will try to overturn it, but that might not be possible.

"Overriding does not do under the city charter," said Hansell. "A decision by our board is a final decision."

"If it turns out that we can't, I tell you what we can do, and I am proposing as well, and that is that we freeze retiree health benefits going into the future," said Villaraigosa.

"What we can do is we can make sure that some of the healthcare subsidies that we have -- for instance, that you have retiree healthcare at no cost to you as an employee when you retire -- that we can begin to pay for that, and insist that our employees put a little something in there," said L.A. City Council President Eric Garcetti.

Firefighters say if the mayor or the city council tries to rescind this increase they are ready to go to the next step and fight them in court.