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Flat Retire? State Policy Would Blowout Pension Patch Job for Akers Age Petition…

Lawrence Akers

Were Akers’s expectations overinflated by mayoral omission? (still via YouTube/Focus Springfield)

The Springfield City Council’s review of legislation to clear the way for Deputy Chief Lawrence Akers to become Police Superintendent had its surprises. One of the biggest surprises was for Akers himself, who thought the home rule petition on his behalf would just let him serve until 70. Then, Ward 6 Councilor Victor Davila drew attention to the last sentence of the bill’s first section. In effect, the language would limit Akers’s pension benefits to what he could receive at age 65.

“I will look into what you just said, and I appreciate you as you say it’s fairness.” Akers said to Davila. “If it’s something that I would not be treated fairly then I absolutely would like to look into that.”

As much as the language surprised Akers, and indeed many city officials, others would have insisted upon it. Massachusetts public employee retirement regulator confirmed it, in concert with the legislature, typically requires the language Davila highlighted when waiving the state’s mandatory retirement for public safety officers. That means little of the considerable pay bump Akers’s would receive as Springfield’s top cop could figure into the calculation of his pension.

Davila made clear he only raised this for Akers’s sake. The deputy did not urge councilors to pause consideration. The home rule petition passed unanimously. It is unclear if the mayor has signed it, which would authorize its transmission to the legislature.

The issue prompted strong pushback from at-large Councilor Sean Curran, who interrupted Davila via points-of-order to insist the bill only related to Akers’s age. Curran spoke accurately about retirement law generally. Yet, the language about the pension was there and he practically urged colleagues to ignore their lying eyes.

Much of the city has warmly welcomed Sarno’s appointment of Akers to succeed Cheryl Clapprood, who herself faces mandatory retirement in May. (She will leave in April). Having survived decades in Pearl Street’s political Thunderdome, he has amassed many admirers and few enemies. He described pursuing rank relatively late in his career, which added to his humble air.

But last Tuesday, Akers acknowledged that, until the mayor’s offer, he had been eyeing the exit. That was why he and his wife had moved out of the city. Akers did commit to moving back, as is his obligation under the city Residency Ordinance.

“When I left the city, it was only in anticipation of retirement and then moving on out of Massachusetts,” he told councilors.

Consequently, the context of Akers’s place in life and his career is unavoidable. With the inherent troubles of policing, Pearl Street’s internecine squabbles, and criticism ever-incoming from 36 Court Street and the public, even the most civic-minded public servant might balk at leadership with retirement imminent. The benefits could reasonably make the difference.

Springfield Police

The department is quite a handful. (WMP&I)

Akers did not respond to an email requesting comment about the implications for his retirement.

The full provenance of the legislation before the Council Tuesday—including the far more controversial revisions to the Police Commission—has been murky. Unlike the Commission ordinances, the home rule petition is clear and mirrors similar legislation other communities have sought.

That said, there are questions. The city’s legislative delegation had a vague plan to tackle the legislation. However, there is little indication members directly contributed to its drafting. The likely committee of cognizance on Beacon Hill had not heard from the city. Yet, the Council received a bill that checked all the boxes—except apparently informing Akers about its implications.

A spokesperson for Mayor Domenic Sarno did not respond to a request for comment.

The Public Employee Retirement Administration Commission oversees state pensions. Working alongside the legislature, it looks for several elements in bills that let public safety employees keep working. This includes a hard cap at age 70, a halt in retirement contributions, and a pension equal to what they would have received at 65.

“This language has what we look for in a bill to continue employment past the maximum retirement age,” Bill Keefe, Assistant Deputy Director of PERAC, said in an email, referring to the petition the Council passed Tuesday.

The legislature does follow this habit. Among recent laws raising the retirement age for individual public safety employees, all but one had the pension limiting language. Several such bills have been pending before the current legislature and seven became law in 2023. Over a dozen passed in 2022.

Many were to allow incumbent police or fire leadership to remain in office. Others allowed the same for non-ranking officers or firefighters. In Somerville, a retired chief came back—and temporarily waived retirement benefits—pending a permanent replacement. None explicitly facilitated a promotion. All halted pension contributions at 65 and limited retirement pay to what officers would have earned at that age.

Keefe noted that the petition also contains provisions that do not pertain to PERAC but are common in such legislation. These are regular physical examinations and compliance with Peace Officer Standards and Training Commission requirements.

Generally, under Massachusetts public employee retirement law, qualifying employees can receive up to 80% of their last three years of salary. None of this would even be an issue for most employees because they have no mandatory retirement age.

“[N]on-public safety employees do not have a mandatory retirement age and can work past 65 and continue contributing and increasing their retirement pay,” Keefe said. “But public safety employees may not.”

Victor Davila

Councilor Davila read the whole assignment. (WMP&I)

Consequently, if the home rule petition passed and Akers became superintendent, his new, higher salary as superintendent would only figure into this retirement calculations for nine months. Only the salary he earned in the three years before his 65th birthday—which is this December—would become the basis for his pension.

At the meeting, Davila said the Springfield Retirement Board, an independent agency that administers benefits for retired city employees, confirmed as much to him. He expressed annoyance at the absence of any representatives from the administration as he explained the situation to Akers.

“By chapter 32,” he said referring to state retirement law, “65 years of age you stop contributing to the retirement according from what the Retirement Board explained to me.”

A nonplussed Akers did not contest what Davila was saying, but it was clearly news to him.

“I’m asking you, because I think it’s fair if we’re asking you to take this this very arduous job, you need to be compensated fairly.” Davila explained. “I don’t think anybody will disagree with that.”

As of this posting, it was not clear if councilors might try to amend the petition or pass different language. However, with the precedent PERAC and the legislature maintain, this may not go anywhere. Municipalities can request a waiver or change unique to their needs in any home rule petition. Obviously, the legislature can overrule any of its law. Still, Beacon Hill sometime sets redlines to maintain conformity as much as possible.

This happened in 2015 in Holyoke when the City Council there demanded the legislature approve bespoke changes to the Water and Sewer departments. Beacon Hill all but laughed off the request, noting that there was general legislation the city could use.

While it is unclear if Springfield City Hall has even sent the Akers petition to Boston, there had been discussion about getting it through both chambers. The city’s reps and senators had agreed to pass it through the House first. Rep Bud Williams was to take the lead in that chamber. Given the history Akers would make and that Williams chairs the Black & Latino Caucus, this is unsurprising. A spokesperson for Williams did not respond to a request for comment as of posting time.

However, there is no indication that there was any back and forth between the Law Department and the delegation. Nor had the legislature’s Public Service Committee, which would likely review the petition, heard about any new Springfield legislation. Committee staff and its House chair had not received any queries about a retirement home rule petition as of Friday.