Government double-dipping isn’t just a Jackson County issue.
City Hall allows the practice as well, with a few caveats. And it’s a good bet that unless they’ve taken precautions against the practice, other local municipalities probably have former employees who retire to receive their pensions and then are rehired in a new position, drawing that salary too.
Taxpayers pay for it. And in some cases, they might be short-changed by government positions being doled out to familiar names instead of inviting competition from new talent. Or, it might be a way to benefit from seasoned employees.
Perspective. The practice of double-dipping irks or pleases, depending. Either way, it’s an issue where citizens concerned about government spending should take note.
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This week, The Star’s Mike Hendricks red-flagged a plan by some Jackson County officials intent on providing two government checks to a legislator. The biggest problem was that nothing had been discussed by the county Legislature in open session. That made the whole thing stink like backroom politics.
It cannot be repeated enough. Transparency: Always err on the side of openness when taxpayer funding is involved.
Officials are pushing for a change to rules so that Jackson County Legislator Garry Baker could continue to receive his pension while also drawing a $35,000 annual salary as a member of the Legislature. An exception would be carved out on Baker’s behalf.
Baker retired in 2004 at the age of 55 and began receiving his pension after working 33 years. His last job for the county was as senior residential appraiser. But he was appointed to fill the 1st District at-large seat vacated by Frank White when White stepped up to fill the county executive seat that was left vacant after Mike Sanders resigned. The request was working its way through the county’s pension board and ultimately will need approval by the Legislature.
Kansas City allows such rehiring of former employees, but it does not allow people to continue adding to their pension benefits. Once city employees retire, that’s it. They can not begin to reaccrue pension benefits. Once they tap into those benefits, their annuity is set. They also restart the clock for other things, like vacation time, just as any new employee.
City Hall officials argued that rehires are not common among the city’s 4,300 employees. But it does happen. Their view is that it allows government to benefit from the institutional knowledge of longtime public servants. The example of an engineer who might be hired on a contract basis for his or her skill after retirement was given.
In 2009, The Star’s longtime City Hall watchdog reporter Yael Abouhalkah reported on two well-known figures as examples.
At the time, then-Mayor Mark Funkhouser was receiving total pension benefits of just over $42,000 a year for serving as auditor for 18 years, in addition to a mayoral salary of $118,419. Another former employee, longtime Public Works Director Ed Wolf, worked for the city for 36 years before retiring. He earned a pension of nearly $110,000. He then rejoined City Hall as Funkhouser’s chief of staff at a salary of $140,000, until he left again in 2008.
From the viewpoint of private citizens dependent upon a 401k, their own savings and Social Security, the practice can seem like too sweet of a deal to be fair.
Businesses perform this sort of creative retention, too. A high-profile executive retires, and then a new post is carved out so that the firm can “continue to benefit from their expertise.” The average hourly wage person further down the corporate ladder is right to wonder: If they were that essential, shouldn’t they have simply been retained?
Like so much else within society, demographics also plays a role. Baby boomers. Many are reaching traditional retirement age, but many still feel that they can contribute. And in some specialty fields, there are not enough adequately trained younger people to fill those positions. Some states have tweaked how they manage the rehiring of public teachers for this reason.
Another point is how someone perceives pension benefits. Are they something that an employee has earned, like accrued property that they are entitled to? Or is it a retirement nest egg, replacement income for when someone is older and no longer able to work?
Baker exhibited the former attitude when he told The Star this week, “I put in 33 years. I’m entitled to it.”