- Associated Press - Sunday, April 13, 2014

PASCAGOULA, Miss. (AP) - The Legislature failed to protect retirees from a recent move by the state retirement system to cut pensions.

The Public Employees Retirement System had gone back this year and reduced the pensions of a number of Jackson County employees whose retirements were based in part on unused sick and vacation leave.

Some Jackson County officials believe their county is a test case and that the retirement system will take this practice to hundreds of school districts, cities and counties in Mississippi. The move is based on how the retirement system interprets local retirement policies.

The agency has audited a number of people in Jackson County who have retired - some as long as two years ago - reducing their pensions and making them pay back what the retirement system now says was an overage. The agency is going back and saying a portion of the sick and vacation days a worker had saved can’t be used to enhance his retirement.

Jackson County has sued and argued in court that the retirement system can’t interpret local retirement policies.

State Rep. Manly Barton, R-Helena, tried wrestling through an amendment to legislation this year that might help the retirees, but failed.

Barton said the retirement system scared legislators by saying his attempt to change or clarify state law governing this issue could bring “unintended consequences.”

“The people at PERS were able to convince some legislators that it might have far-reaching implications,” Barton said. “PERS was never really able to define what that was. Mainly they confused enough legislators that they were scared to change things without more answers to more questions.”

Barton said, “It’s not over with us. … We’re going to work on this through the summer and see if we can get some resolution. If we don’t, we’ll take it up again next year.”

Barton thinks the law needs clarity. He said what the retirement system has done in Jackson County is wrong, based on how they went about it. And, he said, Jackson County employees who retire don’t save any more sick and vacation days to apply toward retirement than state employees.

The retirement system reads the county policy differently.

“If these were state employees, we wouldn’t be having this discussion,” he said.

The retirement system is saying the county’s policy doesn’t allow it, Barton said.

He said the retirement system has done this in a few other counties, one or two people here and there, but without making a big splash.

There are local governments all over the state with personnel policies that have language similar to Jackson County‘s. They are vulnerable too, he said.

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