Nebraska State Sen. Lynne Walz, D-District 15, has introduced legislation to improve and reform firefighter retirement benefits so smaller cities like Fremont and Columbus can better retain firefighters rather than lose those personnel to larger cities like Lincoln and Omaha.
The legislation, LB686, has been initially titled the First Class Cities Firefighter Benefit Bill. According to a press release from the senator’s office, the legislation is aimed at keeping firefighters in smaller cities, classified as first-class cities, from being pulled away to Omaha and Lincoln where retirement benefits are better.
Amanda Callaway, a legislative aide with Sen. Walz’s office, said the current version of the legislation will be changed over time after consultation with assorted stakeholders in the issue.
“This is really intended to start the conversation, to bring all the stakeholders to the table,” Callaway explained. “The bill has been introduced, and we’ll be having a Retirement Systems Committee hearing at some point. We’ll expect some opposition coming in, but we’ll work to find common ground.”
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Callaway said the bill essentially, “switches retirement benefits from a defined benefit to a cash balance benefit,” which she said Walz and others believe will make smaller city fire departments more competitive in regard to benefits as they recruit and try to retain staff.
Fremont Fire Chief Todd Bernt said on Wednesday, Jan. 18, he was totally unaware of Walz’s proposed legislation and had no knowledge of it. However, Bernt said any help he and other smaller city fire departments can get in regard to keeping staff from leaving for better opportunities is welcome.
Walz stated in the press release public safety is her number one priority for communities she represents.
“I am ready and willing to work with cities to ensure that our firefighters are taken care of,” Walz stated in a press release. “We ask these brave men and women to run into burning buildings. When our loved ones have a medical emergency, their quick actions literally mean life or death. We must ensure that those who protect us every day can retire with dignity. I feel this bill is the least I can do to show my deep appreciation for their work.”
The recruitment of first responders at all levels has been an issue for Nebraska as well as states across the nation for the past three to four years. The Nebraska State Patrol had a shortage of more than four dozen patrol officers in mid-2022, the Dodge County Sheriff’s Office currently has at least five open deputy positions and the Fremont Fire Department got approval in the current fiscal year budget to hire six new firefighters.