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Politicians get ‘high risk’ pension benefits

(Week of March 17, 2011)
, Photo of Bob Solari

Critics say it’s not hard to see why county commission incumbents run for re-election. On top of a $56, 787 annual salary, full health benefits worth $8,800 per year and a $350 per month car allowance, commissioners walk away with more than $9,000 in retirement savings for each year served.

And the pension benefit is otherwise so large because members of the Board of County Commissioners are counted as having ‘high-risk’ jobs – like fire fighters and law enforcement officers – and thus receive nearly twice the pension contribution as county employees who have regular jobs.

In fact, it turns out that all county elected officials -- including supervisor of elections, property appraiser and those at the mosquito control district -- are compensated at a “high risk” rate when it comes to pensions.  After six years – one term plus two years – these officials become vested in the plan.

County Commission Chair Bob Solari first brought this up in February as part of the “open and transparent philosophy of the current Board of County Commissioners,” he wrote in a memo. Last week, Solari brought the issue up again when he asked if commissioners could take themselves off the “high risk” list to reduce their pension contributions and save the taxpayers some money.

Commissioners cannot do that because it’s something that’s regulated up in Tallahassee. But the County Commission did approve a resolution to support pension reforms at the state level. Whether county officials’ pensions and those of state lawmakers will end up getting reformed is yet to be seen.

When asked if he thought it was appropriate for the Board of County Commissioners to receive pension contributions at all, Solari, a self-proclaimed fiscal conservative, gave a surprising reply.

“I think we’re worth it,” he said. “In relation to other county employees and the benefit to the taxpayer of our service, I think it’s appropriate.”

But are commissioners just average employees? Should they be? Do these “perks” of the job fuel the desire to get re-elected, and, we now know, vested?

The current five county commissioners raised an average of $56,900 in the most recent campaigns. Peter O’Bryan had the smallest war chest with only $32,234 but Wesley Davis and Solari amassed contributions of $82,951 and $84,388 respectively.

Commissioner Gary Wheeler, between his service on the commission, then as Sheriff and then back on the commission, plus his years as a non-elected law enforcement officer, has been on the public pension system most of his life.  So has Commissioner Joe Flescher, who prior to his election worked for two different law enforcement agencies.

Davis has served on the School Board and is rounding out his second term on the County Commission.  O’Bryan is in his second term and coming up on his vesting date into the pension system next year.  Solari is the only first-timer, up for re-election in 2012, and by all accounts intends to ask the voters for a second term.

This is the makeup of the current commission, which is famous for long-winded, philosophical discussions about smaller, leaner government, fiscal responsibility and the virtues of running it like a business. This is the same County Commission responsible for cutting the county budget by double digits and laying off dozens of workers in the most recent budget cycle, on top of 28 percent cuts and 50 lost jobs in 2009.

And following is what you’re specifically paying those commissioners: