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Tampa audit: City to make 'full recovery' from widow mistakenly paid more than $140,000 in death benefits

TAMPA — City Hall expects to make a "full recovery" from a widow mistakenly paid more than $140,000 in death benefits, according to an internal audit.

Tampa's general employees pension plan overpaid Emma Winters of Tampa after the 2011 death of her husband Jerry, a city Water Department technician.

Instead of receiving a single lump-sum benefit check, she got one a month for five months. Including the taxes that were withheld, the city's overpayment totaled $197,361.

The city sued Mrs. Winters in January to recover the money. To settle the case, Mrs. Winters deeded to the city a single-family home in St. Petersburg that she owned free and clear.

The home, at 2701 58th St. N in the Westgate Heights North area of St. Petersburg, is assessed for tax purposes at about $144,000. But a broker's price opinion obtained during the lawsuit estimated it could be sold for closer to $200,000.

"They're certainly getting an asset that's valued for greater than what they overpaid" to her, said Mrs. Winters' attorney, Ivan Lenoir II of Tampa. If the city makes more from selling the house than what it overpaid to her, she's entitled to the difference.

The overpayment error cost two city employees their jobs. One, a supervisor for the plan, was fired. The other, a manager, quit as the city prepared disciplinary proceedings against her.

Officials said the two did not catch the mistake for four months, then kept quiet about it for five months after they did know. In the wake of the problem, city auditors recommended several changes to the pension plan office, and those have been made, city officials say.

The city has two general employee pension plans, one for employees who went to work at the city before Oct. 1, 1981 and a second for those who started after. The second plan provides for a death benefit to the survivors of vested employees. The benefit is equal to year's pay. City officials say it's usually paid out a few times a year.

After the overpayment came to light, the pension office worked with city computer programmers to create a bit of code that would restrict death benefit payments to being processed once.

The office also has begun reviewing all payments of $6,000 or more to make sure they are appropriate and has created a checklist of death benefit payments to verify that those listed in the office's disbursement journal have not been processed before.

Richard Danielson can be reached at (813) 226-3403, or @Danielson_Times on Twitter.