We need to examine county employee benefits

Let me ask you a question. Do you think it is fair that taxpayers have to work into their 70’s so that their civil servants can retire in their 40’s?

Do you think government workers deserve a better pension plan than the taxpayers who pay their salaries?

In vetting the new fiscal-year budget for St. Johns County, there was a lot of attention paid to the number of county employees and the salaries that they earned. What was not as publicized as the salaries of current county employees was the up-front and back-end cost of retirement benefits for those workers.

Although the City of St. Augustine has its own retirement plan, many taxpayers are not aware that virtually every public employee and elected official in St. Johns County is part of the Florida Retirement System. Every year taxpayers pay into the state-managed FRS fund up to 23% of the employee’s salary on the front-end.

The FRS is a “defined benefit” system — which means the members are guaranteed a certain level of monthly income regardless of the performance of the retirement fund. If the fund loses money, the taxpayers make up the losses on the back-end.

It is a great system, unless you are a taxpayer.

Under FRS, an employee who snags a county job need only work for six years to become “vested”; that is to say that they have an income for life.

Pensions were intended to keep older people from having to make the decision to work late in life — or starve. There is nothing to say that a county employee hired at age 26 won’t quit at age 32 and collect a paycheck-for-life as soon as they are eligible. In Florida, I have seen a public employee retire at 42, with an annual pension starting at $85,000.

The weight of the injustice in our present retirement system is financially devastating and has been exacerbated by county employees who were allowed to “double dip”; returning to work, collecting a pension, at the same time collecting a new county paycheck. Because of a state law past last year, as of next year, these employees will no longer be allowed to build what amounts to a another retirement.

Since an employee’s pension benefit is based on the average of their highest 5 years salary, it is not unheard of for a St. Johns County employee to be “rewarded” with a strong promotion or spike in pay during their last five years on the county payroll.

Looking at the top of the six page printout of county employees earning $60,000 a year or more, not including those who work for the constitutional officers who keep their own payroll records, one needs look no further than the St. Johns County Administrator’s office to see an example of where changes should occur.

Our County Administrator earns $170,000 a year — making him the highest paid employee on the Board of County Commissioner’s payroll. The third highest paid employee is an “Assistant County Administrator” who earns $122,370 a year and has been on the job since February, 2000. Now, add to that a second “Assistant County Administrator”, who was previously in the Florida Retirement System but now collects a $104,441 annual salary, plus benefits, after being hired in October, 2005.

The St. Johns County Attorney who was hired in November, 2004, is the second highest paid employee on the Board of County Commissioner’s payroll, earning $156,558 a year — the fourth highest paid employee on the Board of County Commissioner’s payroll is, you guessed it, a “Deputy County Attorney” earning $112,274 and hired in October, 2001. Three years ago, we hired a “Senior Assistant County Attorney” earning $104,349 a year, two years ago, we hired another “Assistant County Attorney” earning $81,149 a year, and, three years ago, we hired yet another “Assistant County Attorney” earning $74,971 a year. In addition to one county commissioner, do we have enough lawyers?

Both of these department heads, and multiple “assistants”, are earning more than any one of our five county commissioners — who are also in the Florida Retirement System. The commissioner’s salaries are set by the legislature at $63,825 a year which is nearly double the $34,572 average annual wage of workers in all industries reported on the St. Johns County website. Since she was re-elected, Chairman of the Board of County Commissioners Cyndi Stevenson will be “vested” in FRS next year, and, if Ron Sanchez is re-elected next year, he will be “vested” as well.

The real problem is the hidden fact that Florida’s pension plan is not actuarially sound or self funding. The fund lost $31.1 billion last year, or 25% of its value. The taxpayer is liable for the fund making a 7.75% return each and every year, so the gap in value is now $40 billion and we, as taxpayers, have to pay again.

Our county government pension “time bomb” reminds me of the social security problem on the federal level. We can’t fix social security on a local level, but we can do something about this.

Instead of a “defined benefit” system, what about a “defined contribution” system; where we put the retirement funds into the employees 401k account like the private sector does?

The solution starts when we convert all future employees to a defined contribution plan. St. Johns County needs political leaders with the courage to reform the system so that we stop public pensions from being a threat to our children’s future. Those courageous candidates will have the support of Historic City News.

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