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Does one double-dipping bill fit all? No, say some lower-earning state workers

TALLAHASSEE — State lawmakers are debating whether to ban double dipping. They want to stop the abuse by highly paid officials who leave public office for 30 days and come back to the same job, collecting a salary and a pension.

Some want a simple bill, with no exceptions: No public employee could retire and return to the public payroll. Others are looking to craft legislation so that badly needed teachers, police and firefighters could return to work for limited hours or entry level pay.

• • •

Denice Dunn was just 19 when she went to work as a Florida corrections officer. In a career that spanned more than 30 years, she toiled on the front lines of prisons housing some of the state's worst offenders. She watched a Union Correctional Institution inmate stab her best friend to death.

By 2005, having worked her way up to lieutenant and a $45,000 annual salary, she retired, at the ripe old age of 49. Thirty years of shift work had worn her down.

Dunn said she also left because she was eligible to cash out her retirement investment account. Had she kept working, she said the rules would have required that she stay another 10 years before she could cash out.

For three and a half years, Dunn tried other jobs: bank courier, between her hometown of Bonifay and nearby Chipley; motorcycle saleswoman, for a dealer in Dothan, Ala.; and, finally, hostess and cashier at Gary's Flaming Grill in Chipley.

"I had no experience doing anything else but working as a corrections officer,'' Dunn said. "I couldn't find anything that paid above the minimum wage.''

On minimum wage, she couldn't afford health insurance for her children; it would have cost more than $1,000 a month to buy it independently. "When you only brought home about $2,000 a month, it was half of your paycheck.''

Last year, at 53, Dunn swallowed her pride and came back. She accepted an entry-level job as a front-line corrections officer. She works the midnight shift at Holmes Correctional Institution, reporting to some of the sergeants she once supervised.

Her annual salary is a tick above $30,000. She also collects a pension of about $33,000 a year from her 30-plus years of service. That makes her a double dipper, one of about 9,000 such state employees.

Dunn read that lawmakers are considering a ban on double dipping, to keep some 220 elected officials as well as highly paid senior managers from taking advantage of a loophole that allows them to "retire'' for a month and return to their same jobs while also collecting a pension. What frosted Dunn is that some lawmakers want to make the ban absolute.

"I think this is totally unfair to make this bill with no exceptions,'' she said in an e-mail. "I understand trying to stop high-paying officials from staying out 31 days and then returning to the same job at the same salary again.

"But I retired as a lieutenant and returned making base pay for a correctional officer, and the institution has the advantage of my 30 years' experience at the same salary of an entry-level employee. This bill would be totally unfair to people like me.''

• • •

The postretirement plans of thousands of public employees depend on what lawmakers do in the final weeks of a legislative session scarred by budget cuts and the prospect of pay cuts and layoffs.

Two Republican senators, Mike Fasano of New Port Richey and Don Gaetz of Fort Walton Beach, are co-sponsors of Senate Bill 1182, which would ban all employees from collecting a pension and a paycheck. It would not affect current double dippers but apply to anyone who retires beginning Jan. 1, 2010. It has passed two committees and is to be heard in a third next week.

Several lawmakers want to amend the bill to allow exceptions, but Fasano says that might open the door for abuse and that fairness requires that the same rules apply to everybody.

Gaetz wants to consider an exception for state employees who retired without having signed up for DROP, the Deferred Retirement Option Program. In DROP, longtime state employees agree to retire in at most five years while their pension money is put in an investment account guaranteed to make 6.5 percent a year. That gives them a lump-sum benefit when they go.

Gaetz calls Northwest Florida College president Bob Richburg the "poster boy'' for the abuse he wants to stop. Richburg "retired'' in 2007, collected a DROP payment of $553,228 and started collecting a monthly pension of $8,803 to go with an annual salary of $228,000.

Another example: Miami Dade Community College president Eduardo Padron retired in 2006, collected a DROP payment of $893,286 and started collecting a monthly pension of $14,631 to go with an annual salary of $441,538.

To stop those who have "cynically abused the system'' by choreographing their return to the same job behind the scenes, Gaetz said elected officials should have to give public notice and others should have to be approved by a supermajority vote by an elected board.

House Bill 479, sponsored by Rep. Robert Schenck, R-Spring Hill, would allow retirees to return to work at the same agency after a year. That bill's next stop is consideration by the full House.

• • •

In 25 years of teaching, Rhea McKinney raked in awards: teacher of the year at three different Polk County schools. District teacher of the year. And more.

An earth science teacher at Winter Haven High, he retired a year ago but wanted to keep busy. Now 68, he substitutes two or three days a week at the high school and at Bartow International Baccalaureate School.

His last year as a teacher he earned just more than $60,000. His monthly pension is $1,724. As a substitute, he is paid $10.67 an hour.

"It's been my life,'' he said. "The best people suited to be substitutes are former teachers. I was highly qualified. To say I would not be allowed to return as a substitute is absolutely ridiculous, especially when there is a shortage of substitutes.''

McKinney would be grandfathered in under the Senate bill, but Frank Ravenscroft would not. His retirement plans would be spoiled.

A 58-year-old Brevard County sheriff's investigator, Ravenscroft plans to retire next year. He has been with the agency 21 years.

He said that several years back he had to make a choice: keep working until he had 25 years with one agency and forgo DROP, or sign up for DROP and leave with 21 years in.

Ravenscroft figured his DROP check, about $92,000, would help him pay down his debts and his mortgage. He makes about $50,000 now and figured he could come back to the agency earning far less as a road deputy, but with his pension of about $17,000 a year.

He can't understand why the state would want to keep somebody with his experience from returning to an entry-level job at low pay. "I'm trained. I'm not dead. I still have abilities. Why do I have to go away?''

Ravenscroft doesn't think high-ranking officers should be able to "retire'' and keep the same job, but he says those who want to keep on working should be able to return to a lesser job, making room for others to be promoted.

As he put it in an e-mail: "Why should I degenerate to nothingness? Why should I seek a minimum-wage job when I have the training and ability to take a job making more money? I'll bet the Senate does not care about small fries like me.''

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

Does one double-dipping bill fit all? No, say some lower-earning state workers 04/10/09 [Last modified: Tuesday, April 14, 2009 1:49pm]

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