Torrance County Commissioners Continue to Delay on Firefighter Pensions

A pick-up truck with the logo of Torrance County Fire Department on the door.
Torrance County Fire Department command vehicle - Todd Brogowski/Mountainair Dispatch
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The Torrance County Commissioners returned to the question of whether to approve a new pension plan for firefighters offered by the Public Employees Retirement Association of New Mexico (PERA). The commissioners have been addressing the question of the firefighter pension beginning at the October 25, 2023, meeting in which county firefighters raised the pension issue. Each time, however, the commissioners deferred acting on the matter. During the December 13, 2023, meeting of the Torrance County Commissioners, Commissioner Kevin McCall stated he was not yet familiar enough with the matter to make a decision, pushing the matter to this meeting in January. Commissioner Ryan Schwebach expressed concerns that the firefighter's pension would vest at the 20-year mark rather than the 30-year mark used for the county's office employees.

Commissioner Sam Schropp responded to Schwebach's earlier concerns regarding shorter vesting periods for firefighters. Schropp cited the psychological and physical demands firefighters face that non-first responders do not experience.

Mr. Chairman, when we last discussed this item, you brought up the differences in the length of service between the fire service PERA plans and municipal plans. And I would - and I would like to add a little context to the firefighter and law enforcement plans. We can all appreciate the physical rigors of the job of first responders. But very few of us have ever climbed into a crushed car with a man crying out in pain and fear to stabilize him and cover him with protective blankets while the car is being cut away so that he can be removed without further injury. And fewer still have responded to a call at a neighbor's farm to find that [the neighbor] put a shotgun barrel under his chin and pulled the trigger. The things our first responders see cannot be unseen and a human being can only see so much of that before it becomes too much and they have to move on from [working in the] fire and emergency services [fields]. It's not just the physical rigors of the job that wear a person down. It's a mental and emotional toll. The firefighter/law enforcement retirement policies acknowledge that toll through deeds, not words. Now we're coming up on our budget process for the coming fiscal year. And I believe that we should pass this resolution so that the firefighters can vote and we will know how we're going to budget for fire services - fire services this year. So, gentlemen, let's pass this resolution.

Commissioner Schwebach stated he felt that voting on the plan was "putting the cart before the horse" and said he wanted to wait until the next fiscal cycle to approve a new pension plan for the Torrance County Fire Department, citing the pending arrival of new fire chief James Winham.

Schropp disagreed with Schwebach's desire to wait. Schropp stated that the career employees of the fire department had voted to join a union, signed pledge cards, and had been recognized as a union. Schropp said he believed that, for the morale of Torrance County's firefighters and emergency medical services responders, it would be better if the county addressed the pension issue rather than waiting for a demand from the union.

"Where is this information coming from?" Schwebach asked, apparently surprised by the fire department's union vote, "Is this what you see or is this - who are you… who is giving you this information? Who are you getting it from?"

Schropp did not answer Schwebach's question; instead, he talked about his experiences in a union. Schwebach said that he had already discussed the firefighter pension with the fire department's management and that management told him his plan to delay a vote on the pension was acceptable. (If the non-management members of the fire department have unionized, then management's opinion regarding the pension is effectively irrelevant under the National Labor Relations Act (NLRA); a plan to avoid dealing with the union on the pension matter, and instead attempt to resolve the matter with management, would violate the NLRA.)

Schropp asked Schwebach to clarify whether Schwebach had conducted an ex parte meeting with the new fire chief. Schwebach changed his statement, saying he had spoken with acting fire chief Hanna Sanchez, not incoming fire chief James Winham. Schropp indicated that the law restricted county commissioners from ex parte communications.

Schwebach said, "You know, we've been through a lot of budget cycles, and I got to be honest, the reason this is before us today is not because we had staff come in and say 'Look, we think this is going to help; we need to do this.'" Torrance County Fire Department members requested this pension change at the October 25, 2023, meeting of the Torrance County Commissioners.

Schwebach said the county commission needed to wait until the next budget cycle to vote on the firefighter pension. "And so, I mean, obviously, it's pretty obvious the direction I'm going - I'm going - I'm not ready to vote on this as of today, but I'm not, I mean, that's the direction I wanted to go incorporated into - incorporated into - the budget cycle with our new chief."

Commissioner McCall said he was still not ready to make a decision regarding the pension.

"When it first came up [in October 2023], I said I wasn't quite ready for [voting on the new pension requested by firefighters at that meeting], and I wasn't. And in fact, we do have a new chief coming on board. I'd like to hear from him. And all the offset. My analogy is we still do not have a roadmap for this fire department. Today, that [pension] might cost us $61,000 with that new chief that just bumped up. And as this department grows, and as this commission, we - there's no doubt this commission knows that is an issue we need to deal with. But I think it's… I think you're right [Commissioner Schwebach], I think it's putting the cart in front of the horse - at the time - until we can get a chief and we'll get a roadmap as to where this department's going."

Schwebach asked McCall if he was opposed to a new pension plan for firefighters, and McCall said that he was not, but he did not feel the time was right for a new pension plan. Schwebach said he agreed with McCall's position. Schropp then withdrew his motion for the commissioners to vote on a new firefighter pension plan.

Updated Thursday, January 25, 2024: The incoming fire chief's name is James Winham not Tom Wynham.

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