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New Port Richey city manager retires under DROP program, but expected to return to work in July

NEW PORT RICHEY — His week had all the signs of a man on the verge of retirement.

His employees threw him a breakfast. Someone brought balloons. There was talk of cake.

City Manager Tom O'Neill, 55, was out the door Friday — at least for 30 days.

That's because in 2004 O'Neill joined the Florida Retirement System's Deferred Retirement Option Program (DROP), which requires participants to retire after five years.

But a controversial loophole in state law has allowed 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.

In March, City Council members approved a contract with O'Neill that expired Friday. Council members indicated that they plan to rehire O'Neill in July, though they did not make that part of their motion.

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.

Much of the public outcry over double dipping around the state has been directed at elected officials. The state Legislature last session passed a bill limiting the loophole by requiring retirees to wait six months before returning to work. But the law affects only those public employees who retire after July 1, 2010.

O'Neill, who has worked for the city for nearly 35 years, joined the DROP program when he was still public works director. He was named city manager just over a year ago after Scott Miller left unexpectedly, and he made nearly $110,000 a year. He has gotten high marks from council members.

"I'll be unemployed for the first time in 41 years," he said this week.

He plans to do some work around the house, maybe visit his sister in South Carolina.

He was coy about his plans for July 1, in part because he has to be: Legally, the city cannot guarantee him a job.

"Why don't we just stay tuned," said O'Neill. "They've indicated an interest, and so have I."

By law, O'Neill cannot do any official business during the 30-day period, so he said he tried to make sure everything was in place before he left. For instance, every department has prepared its budget. Council will get its first look at the total spending plan in July.

Jeff Sutton, personnel director, will fill in as acting city manager.

Jodie Tillman can be reached at jtillman@sptimes.com or (727) 869-6247.

New Port Richey city manager retires under DROP program, but expected to return to work in July 05/29/09 [Last modified: Friday, May 29, 2009 8:12pm]
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