Hundreds of part-time elected officials in Ky. get taxpayer-supported pensions

critics say some officials don't work enough to earn benefit

bestep@herald-leader.comDecember 4, 2011 

Hundreds of city council members and county magistrates in Kentucky are participating in a state-run retirement program even though some people question whether the officials work enough to qualify for the benefit.

The officials must average working at least 100 hours a month over a year's time to participate in the County Employees Retirement System, which provides pay and insurance benefits upon retirement if they stay in office long enough to become vested.

City councils and fiscal courts typically meet for only a few hours a month, causing some to question how members of those bodies can legitimately claim to work enough hours on public business to reach the 100-hour monthly standard.

"I can't imagine how any council member ... could average a hundred hours," said Joe Travis, who was city attorney in Somerset for 23 years before leaving the job about five years ago.

The only exception might be council members in the state's largest cities, Travis said.

Some council members in the merged city-county governments in Lexington and Louisville are in the retirement system, officials there said.

Several local officials who take part in the retirement system told the Herald-Leader they average 100 hours a month on public business, and often more, however.

Magistrates and commissioners deal with everything from roadwork to water-line projects and 911 service, and constituents call them at home or stop them at the grocery store to talk about issues, said Richard Tanner, head of the state association that represents those officials.

"The vast majority are eligible for the retirement system," Tanner said. "People look at them for everything."

The elected officials — like full-time workers who patch potholes or pick up garbage — pay either 5 or 6 percent of their salary into the County Employees Retirement System, depending on when they joined.

The cost to the city or county is much higher. This year, it is 18.96 percent of a participating employee's salary for non-hazardous duty employees, up from just 6.4 percent in 2000, said Bill Thielen, executive director of Kentucky Retirement Systems.

The rate will go up to 19.55 percent in the fiscal year beginning July 1, the KRS board said in November.

Rising retirement costs are a key issue affecting city and county finances.

"It is creating a real financial burden for cities and towns in the commonwealth," said Mike Farmer, a longtime Henderson city commission member.

The money required to cover magistrates and city council members in the system is a small part of the overall cost to local governments for employee retirement, but it is a cost nonetheless, and one that some local officials feel is not justified.

"In my opinion, it's an undue burden on the taxpayers to subsidize my retirement," said Duane Suttles, a council member in Grayson.

Dollar amounts paid in by participants vary widely

Kentucky Retirement Systems does not release the names of individual members. That means there is no public list of the magistrates, commissioners and council members enrolled in the system.

However, there are currently 444 county magistrates and 153 city council members who are active members of the retirement system, Thielen said.

Officeholders and their employers pay a standard percentage of their salaries into the retirement system, but the dollar amounts vary widely because salaries do as well.

Council members in Columbia, for instance, are paid $1,800 a year, while council members in Shelbyville make $13,200 annually, according to local officials.

In a 2010 survey by the Kentucky League of Cities, the top reported salary for council and commission members was $42,475, but 75 percent of the cities that responded paid those officeholders $3,637 or less.

Tanner, with the Kentucky Magistrates and Commissioners Association, said $15,000 to $17,000 would be a reasonable estimate for the average annual salary of those county officeholders.

Checks around the state by the Herald-Leader found no county in which at least some of the magistrates or commissioners are not enrolled in the retirement system.

Members of most city councils don't participate, however, said J.D. Chaney, chief governmental affairs officer for the Kentucky League of Cities.

But at least some council members in a number of cities do participate in the system. Those cities include Frankfort, Shelbyville, Winchester, Elizabethtown, Somerset, London, Russellville, Maysville, Columbia, Marion, Springfield and even Hawesville, which has a population of 945, according to local clerks and treasurers contacted by the Herald-Leader.

Cities of comparable size handle the issue differently.

Frankfort, for example, has commissioners taking part in the retirement system, but Henderson, with about 3,000 more people, does not. Somerset, population 11,196 in 2010, has council members taking part, but Glasgow, population 14,028, does not, according to local officials.

Members of city legislative bodies, in most cases, have the option of enrolling in the system. Magistrates and county commission members must participate if they work the required time, Thielen said.

The issue of magistrates and city council members taking part in the retirement system has been a source of questions and complaints for years, said William Hanes, who started working at Kentucky Retirement Systems in the mid-1980s and left as executive director in January 2008.

Hanes said he thought some participating magistrates and council members weren't fulfilling the 100-hour requirement when he was at the retirement system.

Elected officials in the system don't punch a time clock, so there is no independent documentation of the hours they work.

Instead, the retirement system must rely on elected officials to accurately report the time they work, Thielen said.

The system has done surveys at times asking magistrates, commissioners and council members to affirm they worked enough hours to qualify for retirement benefits.

At one time, all the council members in Madisonville were in the retirement system, but that changed after a May 2002 survey, said Gina Munger, who has been clerk for 29 years in the city of 19,591.

Four council members who had been participating told her they didn't work the required 100 hours a month and opted out, she said.

The four opted out of the retirement system, and she does not make it a point now to offer the benefit to new council members, Munger said.

"They're part-time. We don't think they work 100 hours a month," she said.

Only one of the six council members participates in the retirement system, and it's clear he puts in the required time, Munger said.

'This isn't a job youcan clock out of'

There is marked disagreement about whether city council and commission members can justify taking part in the retirement system.

Several officials said that attending meetings, researching issues, talking with constituents, surveying problems and taking care of other duties takes at least 100 hours a month.

Sellus Wilder, a city commissioner and mayor pro-tem in Frankfort, estimated he spends 1,500 hours a year on city business.

"I think there's a perfectly justifiable case to be made for being in the retirement system," Wilder said. "This isn't a job you can clock out of."

The amount of time the elected officials work is up to them, however, and it's hard to document some of the time a commissioner spends on city business, he said.

Wilder said he's decided to opt out of the system.

Shelbyville Mayor Thomas Hardesty, who was on the city council for 23 years before becoming mayor in 2003, said there is far more to the job than attending a council meeting once a month.

Members are on committees and other boards, represent the city at many functions and need to be well-versed on many issues, he said.

"You wouldn't be a very good council member if you just showed up to vote" without adequate preparation, Hardesty said.

Other local officials, however, said that while some periods are busier than others, the job simply doesn't require working an average of 100 hours a month on a consistent basis.

"My opinion is the majority of council members in small towns do not accumulate 100 hours of physical business in a month's time," said Suttles, the council member in Grayson, which had a population of 4,217 in the 2010 U.S Census.

Travis, the former Somerset city attorney, said he understands elected officials get calls at home and at work from constituents who want to talk, or get stopped at the grocery store.

"That's what they get paid a salary for," he said.

In Henderson, city commissioners decided they didn't qualify for retirement benefits when the city joined the retirement system in the mid-1980s, said Farmer, the long-time commissioner.

Farmer said he has been an active officeholder, and there have been months when he put in more than 100 hours on city business. But not month in and month out, he said.

"There is no way as an elected official I can meet that standard," Farmer said. "Anybody who tries to justify 100 hours a month is going to have trouble."

Part of the difference of opinion stems from which activities officeholders consider to be part of their job.

It's clear that attending government meetings or talking with constituents counts. Not everyone agrees that activities such as speaking to civic clubs or going to ribbon-cuttings for businesses should.

Farmer said some activities elected officials take part in are more for their political benefit than the public's benefit.

State law does not define what counts as work toward satisfying the 100-hour requirement.

"That gives some latitude for these legislative body members to interpret that in different ways," said Chaney, the Kentucky League of Cities official.

From road work to feral cats

Most magistrates contacted by the Herald-Leader said there is no question they put in more than 100 hours a month on county business.

Monroe County Magistrate Mitchell Page, a former judge-executive, said there are months he puts in 200 hours and others when he puts in far less, but the monthly average easily tops 100 hours. Attending to roadwork is one of the biggest jobs, he said.

"I'm the guy in my district who rides the roads" to check conditions, he said.

One recent day, he spent 10 or 12 hours dealing with a paving project, said Page, a Republican.

The county has a department to handle road work, but citizens want to deal directly with their magistrate on such issues, not the road foreman, Page said.

"If they actually do their job ... they will put in 100 hours," Page said of fiscal-court members.

Franklin County Magistrate Larry Perkins said he initially wasn't convinced he should enroll in the retirement system when he found out about the benefit in September. That's because he wasn't sure whether he was putting in the required time, so he decided to track his hours.

He logged 133 hours in October and has enrolled in the system, Perkins said.

Perkins, a Democrat, said his work has involved everything from preparing for and attending meetings to inspecting property, fixing road signs and even removing feral cats from under an older woman's home.

The woman was worried about the animals and hadn't been able to reach anyone else to help, so she called him, Perkins said.

Perkins said there's no question the job of a magistrate can entail working at least 100 hours a month, though that can depend on how active the officeholder is.

Perkins said he has no job other than serving as a magistrate, and he said he doesn't understand how other officials can hold down a full-time job and still put in the hours as a magistrate required to qualify for the retirement system.

Thomas Dodson, who served as a magistrate in Monroe County part of this year in place of a man who had died, said it's possible some officeholders spend more time on public business than others, but he didn't think the job required 100 hours a month.

He said he declined the retirement and insurance benefit when he was appointed.

"I just don't see why magistrates should be entitled to these kinds of benefits as a part-time employee," said Dodson, a Democrat who lost a special election to keep the job in the heavily Republican County. "There's nowhere in the public world you can get that kind of retirement match."

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