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Sorting out the truth in state politics

Pinellas County sheriff candidate Everett Rice tries to duck 'double-dipper' status

Everett Rice wants to be Pinellas County sheriff again, but he doesn't want another title that would come with victory.

He doesn't want to be known as a "double dipper," the term coined for public workers who retire only to return to the field, simultaneously drawing a taxpayer-paid pension and salary.

If elected, Rice, who spent two years in the Florida House after four terms as sheriff, would collect a $158,000 annual salary and a $107,000 annual state pension, plus health benefits.

Rice pledged to donate his pension to Florida Sheriffs Youth Ranches, a nonprofit network housing at-risk children, thereby "eliminating the double-dipping controversy."

"When some people hear that a public servant is going to be collecting a pension and a salary, it's striking a chord with them. It makes them mad," he said. "And I don't like being called a double dipper."

Those comments are a departure from interviews in which he defended the scenario, saying he earned the pension over a 34-year career. But his change of heart elicited cheers at a news conference and online. The outstanding question, however, is whether Rice would continue to be a double dipper.

PolitiFact Florida decided not to put Rice's statements to the Truth-O-Meter, in part because they were artfully worded. But we did think a fuller examination was warranted.

Rice's decision to donate his state pension is generous — and politically expedient. But technically, it doesn't really change his status as a double dipper. Taxpayers would continue to pay for his pension and salary. Rice, now an attorney, would just be changing where the pension goes, not to mention reaping a tax deduction for the donation.

A better solution, says Sen. Mike Fasano, R-New Port Richey, a longtime critic of double dippers, would be to copy Gov. Rick Scott and reduce his annual salary to $0.12.

Rice balked at that during the news conference, saying, "For Fasano to say that by me not keeping my pension doesn't save the taxpayers money, that's just wrong. The Florida Sheriffs Youth Ranches has the best track record of helping our neglected and unwanted children."

Fasano isn't wrong, for reasons we've already explained.

Either way, there's no chance Rice would return his pension to the state or salary back to the county, he told PolitiFact Florida. That would be like throwing money at a "black hole somewhere and doesn't do anybody any good."

"If accepting my pension payments and turning them over to the Florida Sheriffs Youth Ranches still makes me a double dipper, then I'll accept it," he said. "I would challenge anyone else that's a double dipper to do the same thing."

Rice's Republican opponent, Sheriff Bob Gualtieri, called the donation plan "an empty afterthought." But Rice points out he wouldn't be the first Pinellas sheriff to be a double dipper. Sheriff Jim Coats, who resigned this year, also collected a salary, retirement pay and a DROP payout from decades spent at the agency.

"I don't understand why Gualtieri has an issue with double dipping when his own boss did it for many years," Rice said.

University of South Florida tax professor Ryan Huston suggested Rice could save about $30,000 by writing off his hypothetical donation, though it's really a fluid "guesstimate" that doesn't account for a lot of other variables.

"I would never tell you to just give away money for tax benefits," Huston said.

Rice's decision may win over voters, but he would still be drawing two sizable checks from the state. That means he'll remain a double dipper.

Times staff writer Peter Jamison contributed to this report. PolitiFact Florida is partnering with 10 News for the 2012 election season. See video fact-checks at PolitiFact.com/Florida.

Pinellas County sheriff candidate Everett Rice tries to duck 'double-dipper' status 06/08/12 [Last modified: Thursday, June 14, 2012 10:43am]
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