Make us your home page
Instagram

Today’s top headlines delivered to you daily.

(View our Privacy Policy)

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]
Photo reprints | Article reprints

© 2017 Tampa Bay Times

    

Join the discussion: Click to view comments, add yours

Loading...
  1. Triad Retail Media names Sherry Smith as CEO

    Corporate

    ST. PETERSBURG — Triad Retail Media, a St. Petersburg-based digital ads company, said CEO Roger Berdusco is "leaving the company to pursue new opportunities" and a member of the executive team, Sherry Smith, is taking over.

    Roger Berdusco is stepping down as CEO at Triad Retail Media to pursue other opportunities. [Courtesy of Triad Retail Media]
  2. What to watch this week: Fall TV kicks off with 'Will & Grace,' 'Young Sheldon,' return of 'This Is Us'

    Blogs

    September temperatures are still creeping into the 90s, but fall officially started a few days ago. And with that designation comes the avalanche of new and returning TV shows. The Big Bang Theory fans get a double dose of Sheldon Cooper's nerdisms with the return of the titular series for an eleventh season and …

    Sean Hayes, Debra Messing and Megan Mullally in Will & Grace.
  3. Eight refueling jets from Arkansas, 250 people heading to new home at MacDill

    Macdill

    TAMPA — The number of KC-135 refueling jets at MacDill Air Force Base will grow from 18 to 24 with the return of a squadron that once called Tampa home.

    A KC-135 Stratotanker, a military aerial refueling jet, undergoes maintenance at MacDill Air Force Base. The planes, many flying since the late 1950s, are now being flown more than twice as much as scheduled because of ongoing foreign conflicts. [LOREN ELLIOTT   |   Times]
  4. Bucs couldn't connect on or stop deep passes in loss to Vikings

    Bucs

    If two things were established as storylines entering Sunday's Bucs-Vikings game, it was that Tampa Bay was still struggling to establish the deep passes that were missing from its offense last year, and that …

    Minnesota Vikings wide receiver Stefon Diggs (14) gets into the end zone for a long touchdown reception as Bucs free safety Chris Conte (23) cannot stop him during the second half. [LOREN ELLIOTT   |   Times]
  5. Alejandro Villanueva, Steelers player and Army vet who stood alone, now has the NFL's top-selling jersey

    Bucs

    CHICAGO — When the national anthem started at Soldier Field on Sunday, the visiting sideline was mostly empty. The most prominent evidence of the Pittsburgh Steelers was offensive lineman Alejandro Villanueva, a former Army Ranger, standing all by himself near the tunnel, holding his right hand over his heart.

    Alejandro Villanueva stands alone during the national anthem at Soldier Field in Chicago. [Associated Press]