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Central Point police officers take retirement

CENTRAL POINT ' Much to the surprise of City Council members Thursday, Police Chief Mike Sweeny announced that his department's top two officers ' himself included ' were being forced into early retirement because of the uncertain future of the Public Employees Retirement System.

Due to the proposed changes in PERS laws and the uncertainty of everyone I've talked to about the issue ... I'm in a position where I cannot afford to ride it out and see what happens if the results could possibly be negative, said Sweeny to a stunned and unhappy council.

The last five years (as chief) have been rewarding for me. I've enjoyed working with the council and I feel that we've really raised the bar of professionalism. I'm just sorry this had to happen sooner than I wanted it to.

Sweeny then announced that his second in command, Lt. Tony McPherson, also had been forced to retire early.

— Both had planned to continue with the department for another year or two, they said, but decided the financial risk was too great.

I'm just trying to be positive, McPherson said Friday.

My thoughts are, it's about time for me to leave anyway, and the Legislature helped make my decision, he said. Either way, I'm leaving before I really want to, but I'll lose less money if I go now. This whole thing is affecting the ultimate monthly income that I'll make for the rest of my life.

The Legislature recently passed reform laws that will reduce the amount of benefits retirees receive in order to stem PERS' growing &

36;16 billion deficit. The laws, some of which go into effect in July, are expected to be challenged in the courts.

While Sweeny came to the city from the Medford Police Department, McPherson has spent his entire career, which began in 1976, with the Central Point department, climbing the ranks to his current position in July 2001.

Will you stay and double dip? I wouldn't care, said councilwoman Donna Higginbotham, only half-joking and unaware her suggestion would be considered.

Within minutes after a brief executive session, City Administrator Phil Messina announced that Sweeny and McPherson had been offered contracts to continue with the department for up to one year until replacements could be found. The contracts would begin immediately following their May 31 retirement and include salary and medical benefits but not sick, holiday or retirement pay.

PERS laws allow retirees to work up to 1,039 hours per year without losing pension benefits.

Mike has over 30 years and Lt. McPherson, 26. We're looking at losing over 55 years of experience in the very near future, Messina said. It's really difficult to have to lose so much so suddenly.

The employment agreement will give us some time at least, but if not for this we would be down 20 percent by August, he added, when one more retirement is scheduled and a fourth officer is leaving for another job.

Buffy Pollock is a free-lance writer living in Medford. E-mail her at buffypollock@juno.com.