Frank White should nix this Jackson County sweetheart pension deal

The Star

Whenever a governing body is in a red-hot hurry to pass controversial legislation, there’s every reason to be suspicious.

Case in point: the sweetheart deal that Jackson County legislators just approved for newly elected county legislator Ron Finley.

Under an ordinance approved Monday, Finley can now “double dip” while serving in the legislature. That is, Finley can collect his $35,000 annual legislative salary and continue receiving his $480 monthly county pension from his previous service as a county legislator.

That practice was not allowed until the legislature acted this week.

Critics say that Finley is actually triple-dipping in that his monthly pension will rise as he adds to his years of service to the county.

That’s on top of the $1,122 per month Finley also receives from Kansas City for his two terms on the City Council, including a $200 health subsidy.

This arrangement apparently was cooked up by Dennis Waits, who’s about to retire from the legislature after a 32-year career. At a hearing, he said the change was a matter of fairness. Finley, after all, earned his county pension and has been receiving it. Besides, another retiring legislator, Garry Baker, was blocked from receiving his county pension for the past three years, and that irritated Waits.

Waits tried to push through a similar change two years ago for Baker, but fell short after a Star reporter exposed the arrangement.

Now, though, Finley will get his triple dip, as will every other county employee who is at least 65 and retired only to be rehired later. Officials said they weren’t sure what this might cost the pension fund.

For his part, Finley said he wasn’t even aware of the ordinance, and his name never came up Monday. Then again, he surely understood before he ran that he would lose his county pension if he was elected. But he ran anyway.

This change wound up happening fast — so fast, in fact, that legislators lacked documentation explaining what they were doing. Three votes were taken Monday. The county’s Finance and Audit Committee, which includes Waits as chair and Baker, who also is retiring, recommended the measure for passage. Later the same day, the legislature voted twice on the ordinance, approving it. That rates as a rush job.

County records show that the ordinance first appeared before the public on Nov. 27, when it showed up on the legislature’s agenda as a proposal. But the agenda didn’t explain what this matter was all about, only that it related to the pension plan.

The county’s employee pension board learned about the idea and unanimously opposed it. “I know of no other public plan that allows for what the ordinance essentially allows, triple dipping as it is called in the public sector,” wrote pension board member Claire Scoville. “I have concern when any plan succumbs to special interest.”

“Jackson County has a history of things like this being misused,” legislator Crystal Williams said at one point. “The timing is weird,” she said at another. “It doesn’t look good.”

She’s spot on. But this is the way Jackson County does business and the reason why so many citizens remain skeptical.

The ordinance was rushed because this was probably the last meeting for Waits and Baker and others who backed the idea. They undoubtedly knew that new legislators might not look so kindly on it.

County Executive Frank White could veto this turkey. We hope he does.