TALLAHASSEE — Forget double-dipping. Florida has 131 triple-dippers.
These state employees are drawing not one but two pensions and are back on the job, receiving a salary and working toward a third pension.
In Florida, there is no limit on the number of pensions a person can receive.
The state has made it far too easy to "game the system,'' according to a national expert on state pension funds.
Some states have made it illegal to collect a pension and return to work at the same job and salary. Some states have made it illegal to take any public sector job in the same retirement system without forfeiting retirement benefits.
Florida has no such constraints. More than 1,200 former state employees collect two or more pensions; an additional 131 employees collect at least two pensions and a salary.
"It's disheartening to see cases like this,'' said Keith Brainard, director of research for the National Association of State Retirement Administrators.
"The public sees this as favoring a few when there are hundreds of thousands of people in Florida who are not gaming the system, and just a small number taking advantage of it.''
Don't expect the law to change.
"It's going to be a bit of an uphill battle to get anything done, I'm afraid,'' said Sen. Mike Fasano, R-New Port Richey, the sponsor of a bill that would stop double-dipping by elected officials.
"Apparently there are more double-dippers in the Legislature than I thought. What a mess.''
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The triple-dippers include school principals, teachers, sheriff's deputies, health department employees, deputy clerks of the court and other public employees from dozens of Florida counties.
Because of the push to keep teachers on the job, school boards top the charts of double- and triple-dippers. The agency, by far, with the most multiple dippers on its payroll is the Miami-Dade County school board, with 27 triple-dippers and 835 double-dippers.
Many multiple-dippers are low-ranking state employees who retired years ago when pensions were low, and they don't make much money now. Some only work part-time or handle critical jobs while replacements are sought. Many are teachers who have been urged to stick around and help out schools facing a teacher shortage.
But questions surround the more than 200 elected officials and 200 senior managers who have quietly "retired'' and continue working. Many remain in the same job where they earned their pension.
Word of the multiple-dippers comes as the state faces its most serious budget crisis in decades and some state employees are worried about losing their jobs.
Dozens of them have contacted the St. Petersburg Times saying they fear losing their jobs to budget cuts while senior management employees with political connections are allowed to remain.
"Why not tell these people who are drawing retirement to step aside for people who still need jobs?'' asked a Department of Corrections employee who said she was too afraid to allow her name to be used.
That was supposed to be the idea behind Florida's system: encourage long-term employees to retire and make room for younger, lower-paid employees to move up the ladder.
Legislators amended the law to help a fellow legislator who was trying to collect a pension he had earned prior to his election to the Legislature. But it opened the door for other elected officials to double-dip and remain on the job.
Those who enrolled in the Deferred Retirement Option Program — or DROP — after July 1, 2002, have to take a month off work and can then return at full salary. Regular employees also must forfeit their first year's retirement checks and work a limited number of hours.
Because they must get special permission from supervisors to return to the job, they can be resented by fellow employees who are denied the privilege of returning to work or prevented from moving up the ladder.
Double-dippers come in all shapes and sizes. Many earn small salaries, but more than 170 take home more than $100,000 a year on top of retirement benefits as high as $14,000 a month. Upon "retirement,'' many collect lump-sum DROP payments that can reach hundreds of thousands of dollars.
Those who sign up for DROP promise to retire in five years but, under the law, can return to work.
"It takes special approval for you to come back,'' said Doug Martin, spokesman for the American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees, AFL-CIO. "It is really disgusting where people want to get this big DROP payment and keep on working. Because it takes special approval, the higher-ups get to do it.
"They are making a pretty good living off of the public.''
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The issue of double-dipping was at the heart of an episode of Law & Order: Criminal Intent, involving the murder of a city auditor who was investigating double-dipping police officers.
States around the country are trying to pass laws to prevent double-dipping, with New York passing some of the toughest.
Public employees who retire and return to government work there must forfeit their pensions during the time they receive a salary, unless a waiver is granted that allows the employee to make up to $30,000 in salary for a limited time. Employees who return to work are not allowed to participate in the state pension fund a second time.
Many states limit the circumstances under which returning retirees can work by limiting the hours they can spend on the job or the amount of money they can earn from a former employer to $15,000 or $20,000 a year.
Teachers who retire in Arizona go to work for a private company called SmartSchoolsPlus and go right back to teaching, sometimes in the same position they left, but working for a private company that allows them to collect a salary and a pension.
Brainard, the national expert on state retirement systems, says Florida's no-holds-barred system is discouraging. With many private businesses eliminating pension plans in favor of deferred compensation programs, a state that allows some employees to collect multiple pensions can sour Florida citizens on public pension plans.
Changing the law won't be easy, because some lawmakers themselves profit from the system. Last year, Sen. Bill Posey, R-Rockledge, tried to limit benefits with a bill that would have prohibited employees from being rehired by the same agency.
"I didn't know how bad the problem was,'' Posey recalled. "I'm shocked to find out how widespread this is. I thought it was unusual. I didn't get very far with it. I got no traction and couldn't even find a House sponsor.''
Rep. Frank Attkisson, R-Kissimmee, chairman of the House Council on Government Efficiency, says the House is looking at the issue now. "Everyone is saying, 'Frank, do something,' '' he said.
"It is obvious we have to do something. The idea that elected officials can retire, take a chunk of change and keep going is just appalling.''
Lucy Morgan can be reached at [email protected] or (850) 224-7263.