NEW PORT RICHEY — The City Council wants to keep Tom O'Neill as its top administrator. But first it had to let him go — for 30 days.
To stay on as city manager, O'Neill must "retire" on May 31 and sit out a full month before he can return in July. That's because in 2004 he joined the Florida Retirement System's Deferred Retirement Option Program (DROP), which requires participants to retire after five years.
A controversial loophole in state law allows participants to "retire'' after the five-year limit by taking 30 days off. Then they can return to their old jobs with a salary and a monthly pension — a practice known as "double dipping." Many also collect a lump-sum "retirement'' payment.
O'Neill, 55, who has worked for the city for nearly 35 years, joined the program when he was still public works director. He was named city manager just over a year ago and makes nearly $110,000 a year.
As part of his brief retirement, O'Neill will receive a lump sum payment of $197,278, according to information from the state Department of Management Services. His monthly pension, which would not start until June 2010, would total about $2,990.
On Tuesday night, council members approved a contract with O'Neill that will expire on May 31. Council members stipulated that they will sign another contract to rehire O'Neill in July. Personnel director Jeff Sutton will serve as interim city manager.
Council members on Tuesday praised O'Neill, saying he had been responsive to citizens and boosted morale among city employees. And with the city facing tough financial times, they said, it is crucial to have a steady person at the helm.
"He's done a phenomenal job," said council member Rob Marlowe. "The last thing we need to be doing is bringing in a green city manager."
Mayor Scott McPherson alluded to the controversy — and public outcry — surrounding the practice of double dipping. But he said he didn't think it was fair to compare O'Neill to some of the publicized cases, such as the politicians who neglected to tell voters in November that, if elected, they would be taking a short retirement.
"This is a different scenario," said McPherson. "What is he supposed to do? Just allow the money he's put into this program to expire? ... I think the state, quite frankly, has forced Mr. O'Neill's hand."
Much of the public outcry over double dipping around the state has been directed at elected officials: legislators, judges, sheriffs, circuit clerks, school board members and county commissioners. In Pasco County, Commissioner Ann Hildebrand and former Pasco Circuit Clerk Jed Pittman have taken heat for the practice.
As far as non-elected public employees go, O'Neill's case is unusual in Pasco.
County government policy does not allow workers who enter DROP to return to their jobs after their five years are up, said personnel director Barbara DeSimone. She said she thinks one person might have done it over the years, but County Administrator John Gallagher shut the door soon after that.
"He does not let them take the 30 days off and come back," she said.
The Pasco School District has had only two administrators return to their jobs after completing DROP, said Terry Rhum, the district's director of employee relations.
"It doesn't happen very often at all," he said.
O'Neill noted Wednesday that he had different plans back in 2004 when he entered DROP.
"I thought I'd retire with (his predecessor) Scott Miller as city manager," he said. But when Miller left unexpectedly in late 2007, he said, "I was presented with a new opportunity. I'm very fortunate, very much appreciative of it."
He said he'd been researching alternatives for the last few months but came to learn the 30-day retirement was his only option if he wanted to stay on.
"I feel like my city needs me," he said.
Reach Jodie Tillman at firstname.lastname@example.org or (727) 869-6247.