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Burned

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There are still some Rural/Metro firefighters around who remember the days when the company had a pension. Rural/Metro contributed 4 percent, the employee 1 percent. The retirement age was 59.5; pension amounts varied depending on salary and title.

Witzeman cashed out the pensions in 1978 and "sold" the company to the employees, who began receiving retirement benefits in the form of stock. For well more than a decade, no stock could be sold until the employee left the company. In 1993, when Rural/Metro went public, the rules changed to allow employees to sell up to 50 percent of their stock while still employed.

And even if a Rural/Metro employee were to quit or retire, that additional 50 percent of his stock could not be sold for three years -- way more than enough time, for someone with bad timing, for the stock to become almost worthless.

The company does offer another retirement benefit: a 401(k), started in 1990. The 401(k) allows for a maximum 15 percent annual employee contribution. Rural/Metro matches up to 2 percent, at the company's discretion.

The stock program was terminated in 1999. The 401(k) continues, although the last company contribution was made in December 2000, for 1999.

There is a new retirement benefit, of sorts. When Rural/Metro signed its first union contract with Maricopa County firefighters in 2000, it agreed to give firefighters 3 percent of their salaries on top of their base pay, to put toward retirement. The firefighters are encouraged to put the 3 percent into the 401(k), or they could put it in another retirement plan -- or simply pocket the cash.

So, here are a Rural/Metro firefighter's retirement benefits:

• Whatever he has left in Rural/Metro stock.



• Whatever he's put into his 401(k), plus the company's 2 percent, if the company decides to contribute.

• Three percent of his salary, which he can put in his 401(k) or another retirement plan.

Compare that with a Tempe firefighter's retirement benefits:

• Arizona Public Safety Retirement pension.



The employee puts in 4.65 percent of his salary; the city of Tempe contributes 3 percent. In exchange, the firefighter can retire after 20 years at 50 percent of his base pay (averaged from the top three of his last 10 years of employment). Or he can retire after 32 years, with 80 percent of his base pay.

• A 457 plan (like a 401[k], but for public employees) with an annual match of at least $650.

• Post-retirement health benefits plan, funded at 100 percent.

Now consider if the firefighter dies on the job.

Tempe firefighter:

• Spouse gets a full pension for life.

• A $250,000 lump-sum payment from the federal public safety officer benefit program.

• Life insurance policy, doubled if he's killed in the line of duty.

• Kids get a partial pension.

Rural/Metro firefighter:

• Two years' salary.

• Benefits from a workers' compensation plan.

There is one death benefit Rural/Metro firefighters share with public firefighters: In the case of death, the firefighters' kids get full tuition at the Arizona state university of their choice. That is a state law.


Given that, why would anyone want to be a Rural/Metro firefighter?

Good question, says one fortysomething firefighter with more than 15 years on the job. He hadn't dreamed of being a firefighter; he was just looking for a job when a friend suggested Rural/Metro.

Like others, the firefighter says he was young and naive. Didn't really think much about retirement. And why worry? He was a stockholder in a growing company.

The stock "doubled and doubled and doubled and they kept coming out and telling us you're going to be millionaires," he recalls. At its peak, his stock was worth well more than $500,000.

When the stock started to slide, the firefighter considered selling his 50 percent, but he says it was a tough decision because of the way the stock was sold. The company told him it would have up to three months to sell it, and the firefighter was worried that wouldn't be advantageous to him.

"If it went down a dollar, there's $20,000. So I was afraid that they were going to screw me. Now I wish I'd done it," he says.

And when the stock dove? "I immediately upped my 401(k) to as much as I could put in and figured I'd work until I died."

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Amy Silverman is a two-time winner of the Arizona Press Club’s Journalist of the Year award. Her work has appeared on the radio show This American Life and in the New York Times, the Washington Post, Lenny Letter, and Brain, Child. She’s the co-curator of the live reading series Bar Flies, and a commentator for KJZZ, the NPR affiliate in Phoenix. Silverman is the author of the book My Heart Can’t Even Believe It: A Story of Science, Love, and Down Syndrome (Woodbine House 2016). Follow her on Instagram (@amysilverman), Twitter (@amysilvermanaz), and at amy-silverman.com.