- Associated Press - Tuesday, December 9, 2014

PASCAGOULA, Miss. (AP) - A judge in Jackson County has temporarily delayed the elimination of the pension for workers and retirees of Singing River Hospital System.

Chancery Judge Neil Harris on Monday continued a temporary restraining order issued last week in a lawsuit filed over the pension. He will hold a hearing Friday.

Singing River officials announced last week that the plan was “frozen” and that they planned to liquidate it within four months.

Singing River attorney Roy Williams said Harris’ action came too late. The hospital’s board of trustees, he said, terminated the plan as of Nov. 29, when the last pay period ended.

The defined benefit plan - which promised employees that they would receive a certain percentage of their annual salaries upon retirement - required participants to put in 3 percent of their salaries each pay period.

Due to financial stress, the system stopped contributing to the plan in 2009.

There are 2,389 people in that plan, 623 of which are retired and currently drawing money.

Cynthia Almond, who worked at the hospital for about 16 years beginning in 1991, sued Singing River on Friday. In the suit, Almond argues she contributed to the plan all those years and she was “deceived” into believing the company was making its contributions.

Attorneys for Almond are not convinced the termination process is completed. The lawyers want to make sure nothing further is done regarding the pension. They also want to examine the pension books and figure out what happened.

Also Monday, members of the Jackson County Board of Supervisors said they were unaware the pension plan had been terminated.

“I thought that step hadn’t been taken yet,” supervisors President Troy Ross said. “I thought they were freezing the plan and then they would begin the process of eventually, long term, eliminating the plan.

“It may be a semantics issue, but to freeze means to hold it where it is; it doesn’t change. Then you evaluate and come up with a long-term plan. Terminate means there’s nothing left, and it’s over,” Ross said.

District Attorney Tony Lawrence met with supervisors Monday in an executive session.

Lawrence said, “the board has received a lot of rumors” and that “the information provided to me, I intend to forward to the state auditor’s office.”

He also said that “there’s a large difference between maybe some negligent actions of an accounting firm versus criminal activity. So we have to figure out what it is.”

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