The decision was the first of two council approvals needed before the change takes effect Jan. 1.
High employee turnover has created a lack of experienced employees needed to fill management posts with the town, Town Manager Kirk Blouin told the council. It is highest in the Fire-Rescue and Police departments, where recruitment of new employees also is proving difficult, Blouin said.
“I feel the pain in the Police Department and the leadership void,” Councilwoman Bobbie Lindsay said.
An exodus of public safety employees began in 2012, when the town enacted deep cuts to pension benefits. Some benefits have since been restored, but the turnover persists.
“We have done extensive succession planning, but the sheer volume of change has led to significant experience gaps in our public safety departments,” Blouin said.
In the last six years, 70 police officers, including 12 who were supervisors or managers, have left the department.
Many of the new hires are leaving after 18 to 24 months, he said. “We’re hiring people, and in fast succession they’re leaving us.”
Pay and benefits, including but not limited to pensions, are being cited by the officers as reasons for the departures, Blouin said Friday. The town is preparing to study how its compensation compares to other employers in the local market.
DROP started in 1998
The DROP has been offered to town employees since 1998. It allows employees who are eligible to retire to continue working for up to five more years. DROP participants continue to draw a salary and begin collecting retirement pay, which is deposited into an account and given to them in lump sum when they actually leave.
About half of the eligible employees opt for the program. The average DROP employee stays in the program about three years, Blouin said.
There are 35 town employees in the DROP, including two department directors, five assistant directors, five mid-level managers, eight first line supervisors and three “highly specialized” positions, according to Blouin.
Of the 68 full-time fire-rescue positions, 10 employees are in the DROP. Four of those — an assistant fire-rescue chief, battalion chief and two lieutenants — will be required to leave next year under the existing program.
There are 68 sworn positions in the Police Department. Five are in the DROP, including two captains who will be required to leave next year if the DROP isn’t extended.
Within the last month, a police sergeant and two senior police officers, all in the program, left, Blouin said.
Of the 231 general employee positions, 20 are in the DROP — including a department director, assistant department director, three managers and four supervisors, all of whom would leave the town in 2023 or before under the five-year DROP limit.
To contain costs, the extended DROP would be managed differently than the existing program. It would only be offered to employees in cases of an operational need and if the employee is deemed qualified by Blouin. Each extended DROP membership would have to be approved annually by Blouin.
Participants would not be eligible for raises or bonuses, and would not continue to accrue pension benefits, Blouin said.
The extended program would cost Palm Beach more money because veteran employees are typically paid more than their replacements, who enter the same job at or closer to the bottom of the job’s pay scale.
Blouin said the higher cost would vary year to year, but he estimated it at about $47,000 on average.
The extended DROP program would expire in three years, on Jan. 1, 2022, unless the council renews it.
“We hope the need for it is going to go away as turnover decreases and people develop the experience needed to assume higher levels of responsibility,” Blouin said Friday. “We can’t be sure when that will happen. But three years seems like a good time to revisit it.”
All five council members expressed support for the plan.
“It’s a critical issue for our town,” Council President Danielle Moore said. “Safety and security always comes first.”
Even so, Moore and Councilwoman Julie Araskog both dissented in Thursday’s 3-2 vote, saying they preferred the council vote after the plan is presented to the union that represents approximately 40 town firefighters.
Acting Fire Chief Darrel Donatto said the plan was sent to a union representative Friday.