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Lucy Morgan: Double-dip, a tip and me

Some idiot recently suggested I might be unsympathetic to retirees.

Obviously he didn't know I am one — well, almost.

Two years ago I retired as capital bureau chief for the St. Petersburg Times, turning over the reins to younger, more energetic souls who can spend their days chasing legislators around the state Capitol.

After taking a few months off to have another round of surgery on an ailing ankle, I limped back in to begin work as a part-time investigative reporter. I supervise no one but myself and am paid a much reduced salary. I do collect private retirement benefits and Social Security that was withheld from paychecks since I was 12. State tax dollars are not involved.

I more than understand the desire of some retirees to keep on working in some capacity, but at 67, I have no interest in full-time work or returning to the pace I kept for 40 years. I spend my summers in the mountains of North Carolina communing with Lewis and Clark, our Siamese gang of two, a husband who retired long ago and cool summer evenings.

Even though I'm a part-timer now, I've recently covered a story that has prompted more response than anything I had done in 42 years of working at this newspaper.

It started as a news tip about a judge down in Collier County who decided to secretly "retire'' and return to work at the same job, collecting both a salary and a pension. Ever since, I have become the "double-dipping'' reporter. No day passes that I don't get calls from readers or state employees pointing to yet another problem that needs a story written about it.

Let's be clear here. Many government employees do their jobs, retire with benefits and return to government service in another capacity. No harm there. But when a highly paid employee "retires," only to return to the same job soon after to collect both pay and pension, that has a bad odor wafting all around it.

And that's what brought the response, most of it from readers who are furious that so many people have learned how to game the state's retirement system. A few are angry at me for reporting this, but most are mad at state officials for letting it happen.

A lot of the response comes from public employees who have been unable to get better jobs or promotions because the guys at the top have decided to bring their friends back after retirement. Many of them are too frightened of losing their jobs to speak out against what is happening, but they don't like it one bit and they want to see the law changed.

A decade ago the Legislature created something called DROP, the deferred retirement option program. State employees who had reached the ripe old age of 62 or 30 years on the job could enroll in the program. While the employee continues drawing his or her regular salary (plus raises), the state salts away the retirement benefits and adds 6.5 percent interest, thereby creating a pretty good amount of money that the employee was expected to take and run with after five years.

With the help of a loophole created by legislators trying to help one of their own, some public employees have figured out a way to collect all their DROP money and return to work after a 30-day hiatus. Many of them are teachers, guidance counselors and other badly needed state employees who don't make much money but have retired and returned to work to help out.

Schools need these employees, and they need the money. These are not the double-dippers most folks are mad at.

The targets of this anger are those who remained behind in their original, high-paying jobs, double-dipping in the classic sense.

Webster's Dictionary defines a double-dipper as "a government employee who draws a pension from one government department while working for another.'' It does not include those who collect a pension from a private company and go to work for government or those who collect Social Security and continue working.

Some states have laws against double-dipping. Public employees cannot collect a pension and return to the same job. Some states don't allow a public employee to return to any public job covered by the same pension system without forfeiting retirement benefits. Some states limit the amount of salary a retiree can earn and still collect a pension.

Florida has nothing like that. We don't even limit the number of pensions a person can draw. Some are working on their third pension, collecting a government salary and two pensions. And legislators, many of whom are among the double-dippers, don't appear to be seriously interested in changing things.

Some argue that double-dipping doesn't cost government any extra money. Sometimes that's true, but generally a new employee would make less money than a senior official who has put many years into a public position.

And the entire purpose of the DROP program was to create vacancies at the top for younger, lower-paid public employees who would get a chance to move up.

All around the state government, agencies are slashing budgets and letting workers go. Guess who is sticking around? It's not the 51-year-old part-time professor without health benefits who faces the loss of her teaching job.

It's more likely to be someone like Associate Provost for Academic Affairs Kofi Glover, a longtime political science professor at the University of South Florida who "retired'' in January and returned to the payroll after 30 days. He collected a lump sum $206,408 DROP payment, takes home $131,439 in salary, and starting at the end of the year will collect a pension of $38,000 a year. State law requires him to forfeit retirement checks for the first year.

These days he is in charge of contract negotiations with the faculty union, helping decide who stays and who goes. It's not hard to see why other employees are angry.

Lucy Morgan can be reached at lmorgan@sptimes.com or (850) 224-7263.

Lucy Morgan: Double-dip, a tip and me 04/12/08 [Last modified: Tuesday, April 15, 2008 9:10am]
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