NEW PORT RICHEY — When Sally Sherman was introduced to the Pasco County Commission last month, her long history in government was the center of attention, including 10 years in Flagler County and 25 in Seminole County.
County administrator Dan Biles told commissioners that her background was “the perfect blend of experience and leadership, mentoring and coaching that we really need in that branch right now.”
Biles had picked Sherman from more than 100 applicants to be Pasco’s new assistant administrator for development services, the top job in a critical department which has had its ups and downs in recent years. Her annual salary would be $166,000.
County commissioners unanimously confirmed her appointment, welcoming her, telling her she would be working in a great team and hoping she would enjoy her new home.
While Sherman brings decades of experience to the job, she also brings a hefty cost to taxpayers beyond her salary. Sherman already receives an annual pension of $68,000, and she received a $330,000 lump sum benefit from her previous work in Florida government.
For a public employee enrolled in the Florida retirement system, the chance to collect a pension and also receive a lump-sum retirement payment, then return to another government job, is a double dipping into tax money that Florida lawmakers hoped they had fixed a decade ago.
Pasco County officials didn’t answer questions posed by the Tampa Bay Times about whether they knew about Sherman’s retirement and whether the idea of double dipping was something they were concerned about. Sherman also did not respond.
Pasco County tax collector Mike Fasano said he is concerned about double dipping. As a state senator, he co-sponsored the bill to close a loophole which allowed the practice.
While Fasano said he supports Biles, he said, “we’re not going to agree on everything.”
“If you can’t find someone as qualified without picking someone who is a double dipper, then we have a problem in this state,’' Fasano said. “I believe there are too many qualified people in the state who can perform the same duties at a much lesser salary.”
He does not believe local officials knew about Sherman’s past history. A portion of Sherman’s resume glosses over her tenure in her last job as deputy administrator in Flagler County. The resume states that she worked for the county from September 2008 to January 2019. However, it does not show that Sherman took a break from the government job from February 28, 2018 until September 19, 2018.
According to news reports, Sherman spent that time working for a private staffing company, doing essentially the same job.
The timing is important: Sherman had signed up to be in the Deferred Retirement Option Program. In that program, a government employee signs up to retire on a specific date, often five years from the time the form is signed.
The state then puts the employee’s retirement into an interest-bearing account — which they receive as a lump sum when they retire — along with their regular pension. Years ago, some workers would claim their retirement and bonus, then return to their same job a month later.
Fasano and other lawmakers saw that as contrary to the point of developing the program in the first place, which was to encourage senior employees to retire, making way for younger, lower-paid employees to move up, thereby reducing the burden on taxpayers.
For Sherman, the retirement date in early 2018 brought her both the start of her $68,000 annual pension and her $330,000 lump sum payment. She immediately returned to the same job — though she was working for a private consultant — until September 2018, when Flagler County administrator Craig Coffey brought her back into her deputy administrator job at her former annual salary of $136,500, according to news reports.
Coffey reportedly told commissioners of his intention to make the arrangement with Sherman, for whom he had high praise, knowing she had to take the six-month government hiatus in order to come back and again work for Flagler County.
Sherman didn’t remain long after that, however. Coffey ran afoul of the majority of his commission just a few months later and resigned in January 2019. Sherman announced her own intention to resign at the same time.
Fasano said Pasco officials should ask potential employees, as his office does, whether they have entered the Deferred Retirement Option Program and then confirm their status with the Florida State Retirement System. Given the widespread media coverage of her previous job arrangement, it should also have been easy to find for county human resource managers, he said.
“We fought hard in Tallahassee for this for years,’' Fasano said. “This is the reason we filed the legislation. Even Tallahassee realized how badly this was being abused.”
Before the change, thousands of government employees were taking advantage of the opportunity to double dip. Fasano has said in the past that the six-month delay was designed so that a government would have to fill the open position because any job left open for six months wasn’t needed.
Anyone keeping a job vacant that long for an employee was circumventing the law, Fasano said.
“You are, in my opinion,” he said, “deceiving the taxpayers of Florida.”
While Fasano acknowledges he doesn’t make decisions for the county, and he has no doubt that Sherman will do a good job in her new position, he said the decision won’t sit well when other front-line workers, from the clerks in his office to law enforcement officers on the street, don’t see the same kind of financial windfall.
“She is getting paid a lot of money, a lot of taxpayer money,” Fasano said.
While county officials would not answer direct questions about what they knew about Sherman’s past employment, Biles defended the county’s process and said that Sherman’s experience was the key.
“Our policy is to hire the best,” Biles said. “In senior management roles, that means hiring the person best equipped and proven able to effectively lead, coach and mentor their teams to achieve the levels of service that meet our customers’ requirements and exceed their expectations.
“While many factors are considered when making a selection, this criteria carries the most weight in the hiring process,” Biles said. “We owe this to our citizens, our customers, who trust us to be good stewards of taxpayer dollars.”
Information from the Daytona Beach News-Journal was used in this report.