Tuesday, September 25, 2012
Dorchester County has been tinkering with its retiree policies for the past few budget cycles in an attempt to reduce costs.
Now, as the county looks to its policy of reemploying retirees, council members find they must balance more cost-cutting measures with past promises made.
Some of those promises induced employees to borrow money, perhaps thousands of dollars, to “buy” time so they could retire under the old policies, and further changes could leave them high and dry.
“I want to keep our promises that we made to them,” Council Chairman Larry Hargett said.
That sentiment was echoed by members of the administrative committee, which took the first stab last week at revamping the retiree employment policy – or, more accurately, its lack of policy.
Currently, 78 of 936 approved county positions, or 8.3 percent, are filled by retirees.
Employing its own retirees poses a few problems for the county. Younger employees want to know there’s space at the top for them to move up, said Councilman Jay Byars.
This concern has also been raised by Town Councilman Bob Jackson in Summerville, which is also debating its retiree rehiring policy.
From a bottom-line standpoint, retirees cost money, County Administrator Jason Ward explained.
The county changed its retiree benefits package in 2011 because to continue with the same benefits was “just untenable,” Ward said.
The county sharply reduced the number of retirees for whom it would pay the employer portion of health insurance premiums.
County workers were polled at the time and said they’d rather get a 2.8 percent cost-of-living increase now than a nebulous promise of future benefits, he said.
Some employees, however, were either eligible for retirement or within a couple of years of eligibility, and some of them decided to retire before December 2011 so they could get the old retiree benefit package and then resume working.
Those who needed a few years to be eligible for retirement could buy time. Someone with qualified service, like previous employment in the military or other county or state governments, could buy a year’s worth of service for 16 percent of his salary. Someone without that qualifying previous employment could buy time at the rate of 35 percent of salary.
In other words, if an employee needed only one year to be eligible for retirement, had qualifying employment and was making $50,000, he could spend $8,000 to buy that last year.
Spending the money made sense, Ward said, if an employee expected to work for awhile and the extra money would save him from having to pay the employer portion of health insurance later on.
Now, though, a proposed policy would require working retirees to fully retire within a specified time frame.
Someone who retired in the last half of 2011, for example, would have to fully retire within two years of reemployment, or by the end of 2014.
Council members emphasized they want to be fair to employees who felt pushed to retire because of previous changes.
Council doesn’t intend to harm them, Byars said.
At the same time, the county needs to come up with a policy so people know what they can count on and so younger employees see a future in Dorchester, he said.
In addition to requiring permanent retirement, the proposed new policy would discourage hiring retirees by limiting the length of time they could work and the amount of leave they could earn.
Part-timers and employees in the sheriff’s office, detention center and EMS would be paid the starting rate instead of the salary at which they retired.
In addition, the county won’t pay out accumulated leave when those people fully retire.
Right now, the county pays out leave when an employee retirees and again when he fully retires.
That can get pretty expensive, as someone with 20 years of service qualifies for 24 days of leave every year, and the county will pay for a maximum of 45 accumulated days.
That leave is paid out at the employee’s current rate, not at the rate paid when the employee earned the time.