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In Indian River County, public service often comes with perks

STORY BY EILEEN KELLEY, (Week of July 25, 2013)

Many people assume those elected to serve on area city councils, school boards, and county commissions are largely uncompensated, but the reality is this is often untrue – and local “public servants” frequently are not only well-paid, but reap a variety of health and pension benefits for part-time work courtesy of the taxpayers.

The local officials with the best deals, a Vero Beach 32963 inquiry found, are those who serve on the County Commission, the School Board and the Mosquito Control District. 

County commissioners not only are paid $56,264 annually, but receive generous health and pension benefits.  School Board members are paid $32,018 for their part-time work, and also receive health and pension benefits.  Mosquito Control District members get $4,800 a year, but taxpayers pick up 100 percent of their health coverage whether they are on a single or family plan.  They also qualify for pensions.

At the other end of the spectrum are members of the Indian River Shores Town Council and the Orchid Town Council, who are not paid and do not receive benefits of any kind.  The same applies to members of the Hospital District and the Soil and Water Conservation District.

“I’d gladly give away half my salary,” David Gunter, chairman of soil and water district board, said cheerfully.

In the middle of the pack on pay and benefits are the Vero Beach, Fellsmere and Sebastian city councils.

The Vero Beach City Council has attracted the most attention as a result of council Dick Winger suggesting earlier this month during the city’s budget workshops that Mayor Craig Fletcher and Councilwoman Pilar Turner – the only people on the council who signed up for city health insurance – give up that benefit to save taxpayers about $ 14,400 a year (see accompanying story).

Some council members appeared uncomfortable with the talk about the health perk – something offered to council members since at least the 1960s – while at the same time they were considering layoffs and eliminating the police dispatch center.  In the end, council members left the insurance perk in the budget.

But the far smaller city of Fellsmere shells out $25,540 to provide health insurance for all of its council members except Joel Tyson. 

The city of Sebastian, now the largest in Indian River County, also turns out to be the most frugal, not offering health insurance to city council members.

None of the three cities has a pension plan for council members, though Fellsmere does let them participate in a deferred compensation plan similar to a 401K.

As far as pay is concerned, Vero Beach pays its council members $10,800 a year – with the one serving as mayor each year getting an additional $2,700.  This is far more than Fellsmere – which pays council members $4,800 with the mayor receiving an additional $1,200 – or Sebastian, which pays council members $3,600 with the mayor getting another $1,800.

Election to the two highest paying governing bodies – the County Commission and the School Board – can come with a lifetime of pension benefits through the Florida Retirement System.

The Florida Retirement System is open to even part-time employees in state and local agencies that participate in the program, and the Mosquito Control District and Sebastian Inlet Tax District also provide pension benefits to board members in this way.

There are two options within the system, a defined pension, and a deferred contribution plan.

Under the defined program, pensions are figured by taking the average pay for the five highest years of service and multiplying that by years of service. That number is then multiplied by 3 percent for elected positions and 1.65 percent for typical rank-and-file employees. Police also fall in the 3 percent category. Judges get the most, 3.3 percent. 

Nothing bars elected board members from voluntarily reducing their accrual value per year of service from the current 3 percent or from deciding not to participate all together.  All paid elected board members can voluntarily reduce their salaries.

“They all talk about wanting to cut pensions,” said County Administrator Joe Baird, “but they just don’t do it.”

Walter Geiger, a member of the Indian River County Taxpayers Association, agrees. 

Geiger, who retired as a public service worker in Miami, has even sent Gov. Rick Scott a letter saying the system needs to be revamped.

As for Indian River County elected officials, Geiger said people should have to work full time to get perks. “The whole system needs to be reviewed,” he said. “I think it is a little out of whack.”

Vero Beach City Council
- Salary: $13,500 for mayor; $10,800 for city council members.
- Current health costs to taxpayers: $14,453.16.
- Council members who take city insurance: Mayor Fletcher, who pays $295.74 a month out of pocket while the city pays $760.52 monthly for his family coverage, and Turner, who pays $33.40 a month out of pocket while the city pays $443.91 monthly for single coverage.
- Pension: None.

Sebastian City Council
- Salary: Mayor receives $5,400 a year. City council members receive $3,600 annually.
- Current health costs: No health benefits offered to members of the council.
- Pension: None.
- Other perks: Mayor and council members get $300 a month for travel, car use and mileage.

Fellsmere City Council
- Salary: Mayor receives $6,000 annually while council members receive $4,800.
- Current health costs: $25,540 annually.
All members take health insurance except Joel Tyson. Costs vary for the four council members.
- Pension: None, but there is a deferred compensation plan where the city puts in 11 percent and the employees put in 4 percent. This type of plan is similar to a 401K which is common in private industries.
- Other perks: Mileage only for extensive travel, not day-to-day travel. 

Indian River School Board
- Salary: $32,018. Pay set by Florida Statute, although board members could opt for less.
- Current health costs to taxpayers: $19,440 annually. All but Claudia Jimenez take health benefit.
- Pension: Eligible for state retirement system. Board member Carol Johnson is the only one enrolled in the state’s defined benefit pension program as she had already been a member of the system because she worked in a school system. The other four are in the state’s defined contribution program.
- Other perks: Board members do not get mileage or a car subsidy for routine work.

County Commission
- Salary: $56,264. Pay is set by Florida Statute, although commissioners could opt for less.
- Current health benefit costs: $42,900 annually. All commissioners take health benefits. Commissioners chip in $217.50 per month. The cost to taxpayers for family coverage is $715 per month.
- Pension: County commissioners fall under state retirement system. If a person chose the pension plan, that would equate to about $1,406 a month for someone who served 10 years in the position provided that the average highest five years of salary was $56,264. Members can also opt for the contribution plan.
- Other perks: Commissioners may receive mileage reimbursement. Each receive $2,100 annually for car allowance although that isn’t something required by the state.