Against a backdrop of an economic recession, declining property values, foreclosures, revenue shortfalls, curtailed government spending and fears of a dying downtown, the New Port Richey City Council passed up an opportunity to take a stand against financial arrogance.
Instead of seeking a cost savings last week, the council blessed City Manager Tom O'Neill's plan to double-dip at the public trough. At the end of May, O'Neill will retire for 30 days, receive a lump sum payment of nearly $200,000, return to his job and then collect both a paycheck and a pension next year.
It is an insult to private-sector workers and public employees alike who face job losses, salary freezes and wage cuts. Expected government budget cuts from Tallahassee on down will affect even more residents who are already struggling and, who, unlike O'Neill, do not have generous pensions or employer-paid health care.
Mayor Scott McPherson's logic rationalizing O'Neill's personal financial gain? It's the state's fault.
Indeed, the Legislature created the early-retirement incentive known as DROP, the original intent of which was to encourage late-career, high-salaried employees to leave government service to make way for replacements earning a lower compensation. But a loophole allows employees to leave their jobs, grab the one-time payment accumulated on their behalf, and then regain their position after a 30-day respite. It allows people to collect a paycheck and pension simultaneously. In O'Neill's case, after a one-year waiting period, it is a $110,000 annual salary and a monthly retirement check of $2,990, or just less than $36,000 a year.
Even if the state forced O'Neill's hand, as McPherson contended, the City Council is the enabler. Its public comments show a willingness to accept the city manager's decision and to follow through on this scheme that has been exploited by nearly 10,000 public employees. The council voted only to accept O'Neill's resignation, but members stated clearly their intent to offer him the city manager's job again.
That others are doing it, does not make it okay. That O'Neill is appointed, not elected, also fails to justify misusing the public payroll for personal gain. Pasco County does not allow administrators to pull similar maneuvers, according to the county's personnel office. (That didn't stop Commissioner Ann Hildebrand, however, from double-dipping without ever leaving elected office.) The Pasco School Board has said it allowed high-salaried administrators to be eligible for rehiring to lower-paying classroom positions when the district was short qualified teachers. New Port Richey would be wise to follow comparable guidelines.
The council has been impressed with O'Neill's performance since elevating him from public works director a little over a year ago. It is understandable that the members would want to maintain stability in what is expected to be a difficult budget year. And O'Neill said he believes the city needs him to remain at the helm.
So, let him stay. But his new contract should be negotiated to include a significantly lower remuneration. A $2,990 monthly pay cut strikes us as an appropriate amount.