Retired Hillsborough planning chief may return as a double-dipper

TAMPA — Longtime planning chief Bob Hunter announced his retirement last year in a Thanksgiving eve news release all but guaranteed to attract minimal attention.

Now, after slightly more than a month off the job, Hunter is looking to join the ranks of double-dippers — government employees who return to their old jobs, collect their old salaries, as well as a monthly pension check.

In Hunter's case, he's getting a $206,731 lump-sum pension payout to boot.

The Hillsborough County City-County Planning Commission is considering whether to ask Hunter back. Hunter informed the board's executive committee this week that he'd accept and can start immediately.

Hunter, 66, insists this was not the plan all along, that he was looking forward to taking on some consulting work. But, since commissioners asked, he figured they could probably use his expertise in these trying times.

"Oh, God, no, it hasn't been my intention to return," said Hunter, who resigned effective Dec. 31. "But the call would allow me to stay at home rather than do so much travel."

At least one planning commissioner says the whole situation seems a bit odd.

Ed Giunta II, a real estate developer, said the topic came out of the blue during Monday's executive committee meeting, which was supposed to be about hiring an executive search firm to find someone to replace Hunter.

Suddenly, some commissioners were saying, Why go through the trouble and expense? Why not just ask Hunter back?

Then, Giunta said, they called Hunter on his cell phone during the meeting and asked if he would return to work. They even specified that he could have a three-year contract.

Hunter mulled it briefly, then said he could start immediately.

"It feels orchestrated," said Giunta. "I can tell you as a taxpayer, it doesn't sit well with me."

Giunta isn't a member of the executive committee but attended as a spectator. He and other board members prevailed on the full Planning Commission meeting later that day to delay a vote until Feb. 18.

Hunter is poised to take advantage of a loophole in the retirement program that serves state and many local government employees. The deferred retirement option program — or DROP — allows employees to retire, take a month off, then return as a government employee, collecting a salary and pension, as well as a lump-sum payout.

It was supposed to be an incentive for longtime employees to retire when eligible so that new blood could move up. But the St. Petersburg Times has uncovered hundreds of cases of employees returning to government work, often in their old six-figure jobs.

While he says it was not his intention, Hunter's personnel file indicates he at least inquired about returning to work after entering DROP.

A March, 21, 2006, e-mail to Hunter from Planning Commission attorney Tracy Robin included an attorney general's opinion on the topic. It concluded that an informal advance arrangement to rehire an employee in DROP may jeopardize the person's pension benefits.

"Consequently," it reads, "it appears that giving you any kind of commitment to rehire you after the DROP period has significant risk for the agency and you personally."

Hunter said the e-mail came in response to his inquiries seeking to understand DROP generally, and is not evidence of a plan.

Some Hillsborough County commissioners, who provide much of the taxpayer funding for the Planning Commission, said they are nevertheless concerned.

"I've got great respect for Bob Hunter," said Commissioner Mark Sharpe. "But the reason our system is sick from the federal level to the local level is individuals have figured out a way to game the system. I'm just really disappointed."

The county is already anticipating further cutbacks this year due to the shrinking property tax base. If Hunter is hired back, it will all but ensure his agency gets put under the microscope.

"It's not going to go over well," said Commissioner Jim Norman.

Hunter agreed Monday to return at his $145,350 salary. He also will receive, if he hasn't already, the $206,731 lump-sum pension payment.

Attempts to confirm his additional monthly pension payment were unsuccessful Tuesday. But Hunter, executive director of the planning commission for 21 years, said it would be about $1,900, and would kick in after a year.

Hunter said he would not seek eligibility for a second pension, something state legislators are considering outlawing.

"I don't think that would be appropriate," he said.

Bill Varian can be reached at varian@sptimes.com or (813) 226-3387.

Retired Hillsborough planning chief may return as a double-dipper 02/10/09 [Last modified: Friday, February 13, 2009 8:47am]

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