- Associated Press - Saturday, March 8, 2014

PASCAGOULA, Miss. (AP) - Jackson County lawmakers are lobbying colleagues to support an amendment that could help local officials in their fight with the Public Employees’ Retirement System over reduction in benefits for some county retirees.

Rep. Manly Barton, R-Moss Point, won approval this week in the Mississippi House of an amendment that puts the burden of proof on a state agency and not the count to prove a policy wrong. If a personnel policy is considered wrong or unlawful, then it would be PERS taking a local government to court and not the other way around, he said.

The issue of policy interpretation came up in the county’s dealings with PERS, dating back to 2012. The issue deals with accrued vacation and sick leave that PERS says is not creditable to certain retirees’ retirement.

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Thousands of hours are at stake, and the retirement system has asked several county retirees to repay benefits. PERS argues that the county’s personnel policy was vague and did not comply with regulation, but the county argues it did comply and that PERS doesn’t have authority to interpret its policies.

A lawsuit filed by the county is pending in Jackson County Chancery Court.

“If we wrote the policy, then obviously we should be the ones to interpret our own policies first,” said Barton, a former Jackson County supervisor. “Then if there’s evidence that the personnel policy somehow does not conform to state law, then the state agency can take it to court. Rather than us proving we are right, they’ve got to prove we’re wrong.”

PERS Director Pat Robertson said she could not comment on a matter that is under litigation.

In legal documents in the case, PERS argues that the county has jumped in before the aggrieved former employees have taken the matter through the entire appeals process as set up by the state.

Barton’s amendment was added to SB2257. It is an appropriations bill that includes specific requirements for state agency program budgeting. It passed the Senate last month and goes back to the Senate for more work.

“We were looking for a bill still on the calendar that we could amend that dealt with state agencies,” Barton said. “This was a bill that spoke to some things that state agencies could and couldn’t do, so we added another section to that bill.”

Barton said House members supported the proposal because they recognized the situation in Jackson County could set a dangerous precedent.

“It’s a much bigger pond out there than just Jackson County,” he said. “It could be any state agency or any county, city or school district. That’s what the other members of the House recognized. If this was not corrected, they could show up at a courthouse near them next week.”

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