Santa Rosa employees now can tap their personal retirement accounts for more than just emergencies.

Fourteen years after Congress passed legislation to allow public employees to borrow money from their 457 plans — the equivalent of 401ks in private employment — the city on Tuesday approved the change.

"We've really been hearing from our employees that they want this option," said Human Resources Director Fran Elm.

The city for years didn't allow such loans because the IRS hadn't clarified the rules for them. After it did, union groups asked the city to implement the change.

In recent years, more employees have been seeking access to their savings as their salaries have been cut by furloughs at a time when many have big bills to pay, said Dave Gossman of Operating Engineers 3, which represents a variety of road and utility workers.

"We've got people who've got kids going to college or have medical bills or house payments to make," Gossman said.

There is no public money in the plans. The city doesn't match the pre-tax contributions made by employees. There are 1,200 accounts in two different plans totaling $87 million, or an average of $72,500 per account. About 655 active city employees have such accounts, which are open to all employees. Retirees make up the balance. The accounts are separate from pensions.

Like holders of 401ks, public employees long have been able to make withdrawals penalty-free in certain emergencies.

But there is no restriction on what the loans can be used for, according to Lisa Keeton, the city's payroll manager. Employees can borrow up to half the value of their account up to $50,000. The interest rate is prime rate — now 3.25 percent — plus up to a percent, Keeton said.

In most cases, the loan must be repaid within five years. If it is not, the loan is in default and the employee is taxed on the money as regular income, Keeton said.