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Akers Age Waiver Likely to Move on Beacon Hill Soon, but with Cap on His Pension…

Lawrence Akers

There and back again. A police superintendent’s tale. (still via YouTube/Focus Springfield)

On February 26, facing some of the strongest political pushback of his mayoralty, Domenic Sarno announced a compromise before the City Council committee and later the full body. Rather than gut the Police Commission he had long resisted, the mayor agreed to a formal, but temporary suspension of its powers that would last until his next police leader, Lawrence Akers, left city service.

The Commission overhaul was part of a broader legislative package that would facilitate Akers’s appointment. Another piece was a home rule petition to let him remain a cop beyond the state’s mandatory retirement age of 65. However, councilors called attention to the bill’s provision that caps Akers’s pension at what he would receive had he retired at 65. That bill, too, went to the rewrite desk.

On the day he announced the compromise, Sarno trumpeted revised legislation would let Akers serve and continue contributions to the city retirement system beyond his 65th birthday. Consequently, his pension calculations could include the higher base salary he would receive as superintendent.

“The retirement question has been clarified in writing,” Sarno said referring to input from the Springfield Retirement Board (SRB). He made the comment during a February 26 Public Safety Committee meeting. The mayor reiterated that point during the meeting of the full body that followed.

Four months later, the home rule petition has not passed. If it remains in neutral, Akers will need to retire at the end of December, the month he turns 65. However, the bill does appear to be moving—but with the original pension-capping language.

The waiver had been languishing in Beacon Hill’s Joint Public Service Committee since it arrived there on March 18. In April, the House had voted to extend the Committee’s deadline to act on the bill to June 14. The Senate followed some time later. Since last Friday, the bill exited Committee for redrafting. It is expected to received a new bill number in the process.

The Committee told WMP&I the redrafting will bring the legislation into conformity with standard practices for public safety age waivers. Therefore, the expectation is the new language would cap Akers’s pension at 65 as the earlier bill did. Once redrafted and renumbered, it should move quickly through both the House and Senate. Afterward, it will go to Governor Maura Healey for her signature.

Massachusetts State House

As predicted, Beacon Hill was waiting around one corner of the Akers saga. (WMP&I)

The Committee also said it notified Springfield City Hall and the legislation’s sponsor, Springfield Rep Bud Williams, of the redrafting. A City Hall source told WMP&I that as of now, if legislation moves, it will likely have the cap.

The mayor’s office and Williams did not respond to a request for comment.

Massachusetts requires public safety officers at all levels of government to retire by age 65. Waivers to allow service until age 70 are routine. However, the legislature and the Public Employee Retirement Administration Commission, the regulator for Massachusetts retirement authorities, normally require the employee receiving the waiver to cease retirement contributions at 65. As a result, their pension would freeze at whatever they would earn had they retired at that age. Nearly all waivers the legislature has passed in recent years follow this rule.

Sarno’s announcement of Akers’s appointment to succeed Cheryl Clapprood received wide acclaim. Not only would he become the city’s first Black police leader, he had credibility and support from both cops and broad swaths of the community.

Sarno Akers

Akers and Sarno connected, but did they communicate. (via Springfield City Hall)

The mayor did throw a curveball by attempting to disembowel the Commission. That came under the cover of giving Akers’s the same power as Clapprood had. However, the need for an age waiver was never in doubt.

What did surprise many was that his pension—or superannuation, its technical term—could not factor in his pay after the age of 65. When Ward 6 Councilor Victor Davila asked Akers about this on February 20, the superintendent-to-be was a bit stunned.

“That’s not my understanding, but I have no reason to believe that you’re wrong,” he told Davila. Later, he thanked the councilor for calling this to his attention.

Victor Davila

Councilor Davila, the victor in the home rule petition reading comprehension contest. (WMP&I)

“I will absolutely look into what you were just speaking on because I am not aware of that whatsoever,” Akers added.

While the City Council did pass the original version, the mayor did not send it to Beacon Hill. Instead, he signed a version the Council passed on February 27. Under its language, Akers’s would indeed continue contributing to his pension after his 65th birthday. Thus, after that date, his higher superintendent’s salary could continue to factor into his final pension.

The impact could be significant for Akers’s pension. Becoming Commissioner boosted his base pay by about $72,000 according to city payroll records. Given his length of government service, Akers qualifies for the maximum possible pension under state law. That equals 80% of the average of his three best consecutive years of service.

The precise changes to his pension calculation are unclear. It could depend on whether, or how much, of his current superintendent’s pay will qualify as a year of base compensation. Also unclear is whether any anti-spiking rules apply.

Assuming his superintendent pay applies with no other limitations apply, before this year Akers had one year of compensation at a deputy chief’s salary and one year of captain’s salary. Clapprood promoted him from captain to deputy chief in May 2023. Looking back from the calculation date the waiver’s pension cap would impose—December 31, 2024—his pension could be as much as $47,000 lower than if he served three years as superintendent and every year contributed to his retirement calculation.

WMP&I reached this figure using city records of both his historical salaries as deputy chief and captain and the pay others receive with those ranks.

After reading from a note Susana Baltazar, the executive director of the SBR, sent the mayor’s then-chief of staff, Sarno intimated the pension matter was behind everyone. On its own, however, all Baltazar’s email says is the pension regulator and an SRB attorney had confirmed that the revised language would let Akers continue to contribute to and grow his pension benefit. The state had not approved the language.

Baltazar home rule email.

Executive Director Baltazar’s email, in full, on the home rule petition.

Councilors like Davila and Ward 8 Councilor Zaida Govan stressed they were not bargaining over the size of Akers’s pension. They were concerned about fairness. On February 27, when the Council advanced the petition sans pension cap, Govan was not sure the bill was tenable.

“I just wanted to comment that I don’t really feel totally at ease with being sure that Superintendent Akers will get what he deserves at the end” of his career, she said.

Zaida Govan

Councilor Govan changed from red to yellow on the Akers legislation, but was still cautious. (still via Facebook/Govan Committee)

But having spoken to him, Govan said she would vote with the Council to advance the age waiver.

Three months later, it appears the legislature is about to reinstate that limit on Akers’s pension.

In an email, the superintendent declined to comment on any changes to the home rule petition before they become law. However, if the legislature did not pass an age waiver for him, he said he would have only one option.

“All I can say is that, if it doesn’t pass, I will be retiring sometime in December, as the law states I must,” he wrote.

During one Council appearance in February, Akers had indicated that had the mayor not recruited him to be Pearl Street’s top cop, he likely would have retired. Had he done so, only his deputy chief’s salary would have factor into his pension calculation then, but so would some of his captain’s salary. Akers never said then that the potential for a higher pension played in a role in his decision to accept the position. He only said that he had assumed it would.

Before his promotion to deputy chief, he and his wife had moved out of Springfield in anticipation of retirement. While covered by the collective bargaining agreement as a captain, Akers was exempt from the residency ordinance. When he became a deputy chief, he would have been obligated to move back to the city within a year.

Becoming superintendent not only put his retirement on hold but he also became obligated to return to the city. Akers told councilors in February he and his wife were in the process of finding a new home in Springfield.