- Associated Press - Monday, April 14, 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.

In the meanwhile, on April 1, the retirement systems began cutting pensions and collecting restitution payments from Jackson County retirees.

Dale Hickam, 67, who retired from work at the landfill in Jackson County over a year ago, was told in mid-February that the retirement system had audited his account, recalculated the amount of unused sick and vacation leave they had given him credit for and reduced his benefit.

The decision cut his retirement by $40 a month, beginning last week, and the retirement system ordered him to pay back $1,428 at a rate of $119 a month.

More than a dozen others also received letters, according to the county’s attorney. There are more than 175 active county employees with unused leave on the books and another 100, like Hickam, who have already retired.

When asked about the issue recently, retirement system Director Pat Robertson said she could not comment because the matter is in court. But in legal documents in the case, the retirement system argues that the county jumped in before the aggrieved former employees had taken the matter through the appeals process as set up by the state, a process that could be expensive for a retiree on a fixed income.

The attorneys representing Jackson County and the sheriff’s department have said that if the retirement system is cleared to go back on local employees, there’s is no time restriction on how far back they could go.

Another issue that struck Jackson County officials was that the retirement system has been interpreting the county policy for 15 years, on the issue of accumulated leave, and now chooses to see it differently.

“It wasn’t the county that granted these retirements,” said county Board Attorney Paula Yancey. “It was PERS. We just certified the time. They’re going back on their own word.”

These are the dedicated employees who worked instead of taking off, she said, the issue is the state not accepting time served.

“The fact that the Legislature did not see fit to rein in this administrative agency from going after these individuals, who do not have the money to defend themselves … is extremely unfortunate,” she said.

Barton said he and others will hold meetings this summer in an effort to educate people on “what we’re trying to do and why. This won’t hurt PERS and will help the retirees.”

Barton said he wasn’t sure why the retirement system made this move. The agency has had issues with projected revenue covering projected costs.

Barton said he thinks the retirement system just doesn’t think the Jackson County retirees have followed the rules.

“They’re so hung up on the rules and procedures,” he said, “they’ve forgotten what it’s all about, the people.”


Information from: The Sun Herald, https://www.sunherald.com

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