Top Jackson County officials have been working behind the scenes since February, The Star has learned, to rewrite the county’s pension plan to benefit a single county legislator.
Garry Baker, a retired county employee, got a rude surprise shortly after he was picked in January to fill an unexpired term for the 1st District at-large seat after Jackson County Executive Frank White was named to his current job.
Baker’s monthly pension checks stopped when he started collecting his $35,000 annual salary as one of nine county legislators.
Like many public pension systems, Jackson County’s plan forbids county employees from collecting a county pension and a county paycheck at the same time.
“It’s basically the double-dipping argument,” said Keith Hughes, executive secretary of the Missouri Local Government Employees Retirement System.
Jackson County’s rules are similar to ones that apply to state employees and members of the two statewide pension plans that serve employees of 112 of Missouri’s 114 counties.
Only Jackson and St. Louis counties have their own pension plans. And like Jackson County, St. Louis County also bans double dipping, except for part-time employees who work a minimal number of hours.
Baker took early retirement when he turned 55 in 2004 and began collecting his pension. He said he complained to the human resources department when the automatic deposits into his bank account had stopped coming.
He said he didn’t know what his pension payment was, but he didn’t like losing it.
“I didn’t think it was right,” Baker, 67, said Monday. “I put in 33 years. I’m entitled to it.”
He said he did not ask for preferential treatment, however, from the Jackson County pension plan board of trustees.
“I don’t have a clue what the pension board even does,” he said.
What the board does is look after the plan’s assets, which totaled $245 million as of June 30, 2015, on behalf of 1,300 active members.
And since February, the board has been wrestling with a request from “the Legislature” to change the pension plan to carve out a special exemption for people like Baker in elected office, or to allow all retirees age 65 or older to double-dip.
That topic has never come up at a public session of the Jackson County Legislature this year, at least according to that body’s meeting minutes. Nor does the chairwoman of the Legislature, Crystal Williams, have any recollection of the matter being discussed.
Yet pension plan meeting minutes reflect that one of White’s two top assistants, chief administrative officer Mary Lou Brown, advocated a change in the pension plan on behalf of “the Legislature” at multiple meetings.
Brown leads the board. At the May meeting, she said the Legislature was interested in changing the pension ordinance, according to the minutes, “to allow at least an elected official and maybe other retirees who are past normal retirement age to return to work, maintain their full pension and continue to accrue new benefits.”
When several pension board trustees voiced concerns, Brown said the Legislature was going to move forward with or without the board’s input.
Brown did not respond to requests for comment.
But as it turns out, it was one legislator, Dennis Waits, who made the request. On Monday, he said Baker, who like Waits is a Democrat, shouldn’t be penalized for filling a seat on the Legislature.
A lawyer for the plan recently came up with proposed new language that would allow all retirees 65 or older to double-dip if they return to work for the county. They also could accrue new benefits based on their current earnings, but provisions within the proposed amendment would limit the gain.
The change would have “a very, very limited effect on the pension plan” assets, county personnel director Dennis Dumovich said at the board’s meeting Thursday.
What exactly that effect would be is unclear. As of Tuesday, the county had yet to fulfill The Star’s request for the estimated financial impact.
Whatever the amount, trustee Claire West-Scoville told fellow trustees last week that she had misgivings about removing the double-dip provision even for retirees over 65.
She said the change would make Jackson County’s plan out of step with other public plans. One object of double-dipping prohibitions, she said, is to build trust with taxpayers, who pay officials’ salaries and fund the pension plans.
The change could create skepticism, she said.
In New Jersey and some other states, for instance, critics have expressed outrage at loopholes that allow highly paid public officials to double their six-figure salaries by retiring and being rehired by the same employer.
The Jackson County pension board voted to send the facts it gathered and the proposed new language to the Legislature without recommendations. That puts the onus for any change on the Legislature.
Waits said he would gladly stand behind the change because of what he considers the current system’s unfairness.
“To me, that isn’t right,” he said.