TALLAHASSEE, Fla. (AP) _ Changes to the state employee retirement program aimed at eliminating abuses and excessive payouts are in place although a dwindling number of state government workers are still banking two retirement checks.
That second retirement check is quickly becoming a thing of the past and new hires must work longer to become vested in a retirement plan that is less lucrative than its predecessor.
“Doing away with the double dipping was pretty much focused on elected officials and judges who were truly taking advantage of the system, it was shameful,'' state Sen. Mike Fasano, R-New Port Richey, said. “It's frustrating to the average citizen and average taxpayer.''
But almost 2,000 employees, including some prominent names, are still receiving two retirement checks, and it's all legal.
Former Secretary of State Kurt Browning retired in the spring of 2010 when he claimed a $426,897 payout from the state's Deferred Retirement Option Program (DROP) in addition to a $7,273 monthly retirement and returned to the $140,000-a-year job in January 2011 before resigning a second time earlier this year.
“I had no intention of returning when Gov. (Rick) Scott, his transition team, approached me about the possibility of coming back,'' said Browning, who began his state career at 17 and first retired at 52. “Retirement wasn't settling well with me. I was 53 and ready to come back to work.''
The state paid nearly $5.8 billion to 319,689 retirees (an average of $18,066) in the fiscal year that ended June 30, 2011 and another 9,595 employees cashed out of the DROP program. Nearly half of the 643,000 active members in the Florida retirement system are teachers and other school district employees.
Under the new rules, employees are allowed to return to work if they sit out at least six months after cashing out of DROP. Previously they were able to return after 30 days.
And the one-month requirement was easy to get around.
Willie Meggs, the state attorney for a north Florida district headquartered in Tallahassee, received $519,995 from DROP in late 2007 and began collecting a monthly retirement check of $8,468.32 _ but didn't retire. He took a month, as previously required, and returned to his $153,000-a-year job.
“Obviously they had to think people would come back after 30 days or they wouldn't have put it in there,'' Meggs said. “They must have anticipated you would come back. It only made sense you would come back.''
Meggs, who is seeking an eighth four-year term in November, has built over three years of service as a renewed member in the state's investment plan.
Former Wakulla County Sheriff David Harvey wasn't far behind, receiving a check for $487,766, an $8,341 monthly retirement check and stayed on the job after taking the one-month hiatus then required before returning to work. He did retire last September to take a newly created job as head of the Florida Sheriffs Risk Management Fund, a non-government agency. He also became a renewed member in the investment plan.
At one point the Department of Corrections alone had more than 200 employees who were also drawing retirement pay.
The recent legislative changes make it more difficult, if not impossible, for an elected official to circumvent the intent of the DROP since they would have to sit out for six months and the amount of money in the retirement account would be frozen and not earn interest during the period that individual would continue in their career.
The changes seem to be working.
There are 1,931 state workers now banking two retirements, according to the agency that administers the Florida Retirement System compared to nearly 9,000 less than a decade ago.
Although one of the original goals of DROP was to retain public school teachers and also clear the way for new blood to move forward in state government, there are those who point out the actual cost to taxpayers is unchanged regardless of who pockets the salary _ whether it's on top of a retirement check or not.
“Unless that job was eliminated, then someone is going to draw a salary,'' said Sarabeth Snuggs, the director of the FRS.
It's actually a better deal for the state to have a retiree return to work since they are not entitled to further retirement benefits whereas a new hire would be. FRS records show 678 retirees have been re-employed since the new rules took effect.
New hires after July 1, 2011, won't enjoy the overall benefits of the previous program.
Members who started in DROP before July 1, 2011 will continue to receive 6.5 percent interest while those who started after that date earn 1.3 percent. They also will not receive the annual cost-of-living adjustment that those who entered the program earlier do.
State University System Chancellor Frank Brogan will become the first state employee to collect more than $1.1 million when he completes DROP in August 2015. Brogan, who has served as education commissioner, lieutenant governor and president of Florida Atlantic University, will also receive an annual six-figure pension. Brogan, who is not a double-dipper, started as a public school teacher and will benefit from the intent of the original DROP legislation aimed at keeping talented employees in the public arena.
New hires must now work eight years to become vested in the system and will receive a retirement based on their highest eight years of earning instead of five. The new retirement parameters for calculating benefits are now set at age 65 instead of 62, or 33 years of employment instead of 30 if younger and all employees are required to contribute 3 percent of their earnings to the retirement program _ although that is being challenged in court.