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Threatened cutbacks to state's early retirement plan prompts many to sign up

TALLAHASSEE — Thousands of public employees across Florida have flocked to a lucrative retirement program in advance of a new law making it harder for employees to draw pensions while still working.

The Legislature passed a new law intended to curb the practice of "double-dipping," where employees collect retirement checks while working full-time after a 30-day hiatus. The new provision, effective July 1, requires people to leave their jobs for six months before returning.

But the recent surge in popularity of the Deferred Retirement Option Program (DROP) by teachers, police officers, health clinic workers and others could be prompted by another piece of legislation that didn't make it into law thanks to Gov. Charlie Crist's veto pen.

On the last day of the spring legislative session, lawmakers voted to cut the interest rate applied to retirement benefits in the program from 6.5 percent to 3 percent. The bill also would have taken effect July 1, but Crist vetoed it.

The interest rate cut to retirement accounts could have saved the state $85 million this year, but many workers would have lost a chunk of the benefits they were promised.

"I wasn't going to get to this stage of my life and give up 3.5 percent," said Charlotte Neilan, a Dade City teacher who applied for the program in May but withdrew her application after the veto. "I wasn't ready to retire. But in case he didn't veto it, I wouldn't lose any money."

There are many others like Neilan. The number of employees applying for the program in May tripled compared with the same month last year, from 873 people to 2,508. Many employees submitted paperwork during the weeks between when the bill passed on April 30 and when Crist canceled the legislation on May 28.

A 17-year veteran who teaches GED and adult education classes, Neilan hopes to make it to the 20-year mark.

"The problem is, next year they're going to do it again," said Neilan, 64. "I doubt very seriously if I'll get past June of next year."

The DROP program is intended to encourage people to retire early and make way for younger, less expensive workers. It allows most public employees to effectively retire and begin collecting retirement checks that go into a separate account that draws interest and a cost-of-living allowance. People can keep working and earning a salary for up to five years.

When the five years are up, workers can collect the payment in a lump sum or transfer it to a retirement account. When they leave DROP, people are fully retired and continue receiving their monthly pension.

On the list of May DROP applicants are several judges, including Pinellas County Judge Walt Fullerton. Serving on the bench since 1987, Fullerton will have earned more than $700,000 in benefits after he fully retires.

Fullerton said the timing of his retirement is a personal decision and refused comment further.

Pasco Sheriff's Detective Robert Jeffrey, 45, said the interest-rate cut would have cost him nearly $30,000, enough to pay for prepaid college tuition plans for his two children.

"As civil servants, we dedicate our lives to serving other people," said Jeffrey, a 25-year veteran of the department. "You think this is what your benefits are, then at the last minute, in the middle of the night, you find something is going to change."

Last year, lawmakers also passed a law that makes it harder for so-called "double-dippers" to return to work after collecting retirement checks. The law, which was signed by Crist, requires people to wait six months before being re-hired as a public employee.

Earlier, workers only had to wait 30 days before returning to their old job or a different one.

"I think a lot of people also thought that if they got into the DROP program, they would avoid the six-month" requirement, said Sen. Mike Fasano, a New Port Richey Republican who sponsored that law.

But in order to avoid the six-month rule, workers had to fully retire and leave the DROP program by June 30.

Other workers entering the program downplayed the effect of the interest rate cut.

"The pending legislation probably had something to do with it," said Walter Dix, president of the Broward union of firefighters and sheriff's employees. "It may have caused a few people to apply early. But primarily it's just your individual circumstances."

Dix, who had previously scheduled his DROP application for May, said his department has an unusually high number of retirees because many deputies were hired around the same time.

Crist's veto bolsters his support among state workers during his independent campaign for the U.S. Senate. Last year, he canceled a 2 percent salary cut for workers earning more than $45,000.

In an e-mail asking for a veto of the interest rate cut, Pinellas County Health Department accountant Don Strock wrote, "I'm sure all state workers would be very grateful for your gesture of support."

"He could read between the lines on that one," Strock said.

Lee Logan can be reached at llogan@sptimes.com or (850) 224-7263.

Threatened cutbacks to state's early retirement plan prompts many to sign up 07/07/10 [Last modified: Wednesday, July 7, 2010 10:18pm]
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