by Max Brantley
I promised yesterday a little added value for Saturday readers and here it is.
The state Department of Finance and Administration has compiled a list of all state employees who have taken advantage of the state law that allows them to retire from their jobs and, after meeting the required minimum time off work, seek to be rehired so they can claim two checks at once.
More than 300 state employees have done so. The chart at this link organizes those employees by department, by pay before retirement, by pay after retirement, their retirement date and their rehire date.
Some points: This does not include the hundreds of public school teachers who've participated in similar deferred retirement option programs. It does include some people who didn't retire simply to very quickly come back to work with two paychecks. Department of Finance and Administration Director Richard Weiss left government for the private sector, but later returned, for example. Also, there are some non-participating agencies and the computer records wouldn't catch anyone who retired before 2001 and then came back to work subsequently.
Finally, this is perfectly legal and anticipated by the statute that was nominally aimed at retaining valuable veteran employees and their presumed superior knowledge of their jobs. Some savings accrue from the end of retirement contributions by the state, but of course new employees would be hired for many of these jobs at much lower pay levels. I can tell you, too, that younger employees (some even with good ideas) are stymied by the pay plan that gives older workers a good reason to hang around for dramatically enhanced take-home.
It's a good public policy debate, still. But it should not be confused with the low-down county officials who've run the scam by which they fake retired to double-dip. Rep. Allen Kerr is on the trail of perhaps more than 100 who never actually left work and never legally vacated their offices as the law requires, but merely suspended pay for three months and then returned to work at full pay plus retirement. For elected officials, it's an even sweeter double-dip because they can double-count their years of service. That means their retirement pay might equal their regular pay.
The state Public Employees Retirement System refuses to release retirement amounts paid public employees so I currently can't obtain those figures to match up with today's list. The list spans employees from the bottom to the very top of state pay, including heads of several state agencies. No, of course there weren't open application processes for potential successors when most of these people "retired."
I am curious about Parole Board member Leroy Brownlee's appearance on the list. Can you "retire" from the Parole Board, a gubernatorially appointed body, and then be rehired for purposes of getting a retirement check as well as $88,000 regular pay? The chart shows Brownlee "retired" in March 2008 and was "rehired" six weeks later. Perhaps the governor's office can offer some insight.
UPDATE. The Hot Springs Sentinel-Record today published a worthy editorial summarizing the double dipping by elected officials the newspaper uncovered in Garland County. One thing not raised so far in that controversy is whether these faux-retired officials kept their public insurance plans running during their "retirement." Or did they go on COBRA as the great unwashed must do?
A news article in the paper also quoted Sen. Steve Faris as raising still stronger objections to these actions and questions the legality of retirement benefits extended to the Garland County officials.
“I think the intent and the spirit in which this law was passed has obviously been circumvented,” Steve Faris, D-District 27, of Malvern, said Friday
EDITORIAL IN SENTINEL RECORD
Retired or not?
As some pundits and citizens are wont to say about the machinations of government, “Things just get curious-er and curious-er.”
That is most assuredly the case with three local elected officials who went off the county payroll in 2008, purportedly to file for retirement benefits.
In a Page 1 news story on Tuesday, July 21, The Sentinel-Record disclosed that the Garland County circuit clerk, treasurer and assessor in 2008 were off the payroll from September through November 2008, according to records obtained by the newspaper.
At that time, a quirky state law pertaining to members of the Arkansas Public Employees Retirement System (APERS) – in this instance Circuit Clerk Vicki Rima, Treasurer Jo West-Taylor and Assessor Brenda Short - allowed state, county, city employees and elected officials to stop covered employment after 28 years of service and apply for retirement benefits. The law then required employees to be off the payroll for 30 days and elected officials for 90 days.
Act 657 of 9009, which went into effect July 1, now mandates that all public employees and elected officials must terminate employment for 180 days.
The three officials have declined comment, but Garland County Judge Larry Williams last week told the newspaper that they had removed themselves from the payroll in order to apply for state retirement.
However, Valerie Dodge, who is Williams’ administrative assistant for human services and fiscal affairs, said the officeholders did not vacate their positions but rather “worked uncompensated” for 90 days and personally paid for their health, dental and supplemental benefits. On returning to work in December 2008, each of the three officials was paid $60,181. Including the January 2009 cost-of-living allowance adjustment, the officials’ annual salaries are now $61, 385.
The conundrum of Rima, West-Taylor and Short being unpaid but continuing to serve as publicly elected county officers during the termination period has raised more than a few eyebrows and a number of concerns as to whether or not they met the state’s requirements for ending covered employment.
Attorney General Dustin McDaniel, responding in June to a query from Rep. Allen Kerry, R-District 32, said, in essence, “... Allowing an employee to take what essentially amounts to a temporary leave of absence so that he or she may attempt to qualify for retirement benefits does not in my opinion constitute and end of the employment relationship.”
A majority of the members of Garland County’s Quorum Court this week said they were unaware the three officials had taken themselves off the payroll in 2008 and District 10 JP Sue Vaughn, chairwoman of the court’s Human Resources Committee, said “it’s an issue that should have been brought to us.”
We have to ask:
• Who was “minding the store” when the three officials decided to “terminate” their covered employment?
• Why were the Quorum Court members not advised of the situation so they could determine if office vacancies should be declared and interim appointments made?
• Does “continuing to serve” – albeit without pay – square with United States Department of Labor regulations? Can elected officers of a governmental entity “volunteer” to work?
• Is the county liable for any transactions or decisions made while these officials were off the payroll but still on the job, apparently enjoying the titles, positions and authorities bestowed on them by the voters?
APERS executive director Gail Stone has said that “the Attorney General’s opinion has thrown down a gauntlet like never before. My guess is that the board (slated to meet on Aug. 19) will be contemplating some additional regulations.”
We would hope so.
And Attorney General McDaniel on Thursday said, “... My intention is to gather all the information I can and evaluate the state’s options. It appears to be a complex situation and there may be no easy answers.” Sen. Steve Faris, D-Malvern, on Friday told The Sentinel-Record (see related news story on today’s Page 1) of his intentions to also look into the matter and “see where we are with all of this.”
Regardless of what transpires with this issue over the next few weeks, we remind those in public service that they cannot so cavalierly “terminate” their duties and obligations to be forthright and forthcoming with the people who put them in office.