MOUNT VERNON — Three Knox County officials will bring in a combined total of over $225,000 in salaries this year, in addition to the pension checks they will receive from the Ohio Public Employees Retirement System. The process, commonly known as “double dipping,” requires the public employee to “retire” in order to draw their pension, then be reappointed or start a new term.
Knox County Treasurer Sandra Mizer doesn’t feel like “double dipping” is an accurate portrayal of what she and other public employees are doing.
“Double dipping is a phrase that I don’t like, and resent,” Mizer said. “This is money that those of us that retired and rehired have paid into the system.”
The retire/rehire process is rather simple, Mizer said.
“Prior to an election, a person has to inform the board of elections of their intent [to retire]. It doesn’t even mean they are going to do it. Then they have to have the approval of their political party,” Mizer said.
Her letter of intent was filed Nov. 26, 2003, but she did not officially retire until Jan. 31, 2006. Mizer was not required to leave her post in order to meet the requirements of retirement.
The only thing that changed about Mizer’s circumstances is which account is used for her current withholdings.
“Once I did retire/rehire,” Mizer said, “I do not pay into the retirement system; I am done. There is money taken out of my salary every pay period that goes into an annuity program through PERS. I do not contribute to the pension fund.”
According to Pam Shafer, payroll clerk at the Knox County Auditor’s Office, county employees contribute 10 percent of their gross pay to OPERS. The county’s contribution is 14 percent of gross pay. These figures, according to Shafer, are the same figures used regardless of whether they are pension or annuity contributions.
Mizer compares her PERS pension to those working in the private sector. She said once anyone reaches retirement age they are able to draw from their retirement, and still go out and find employment.
“Another factor is that I didn’t do it until I was [standard] retirement age. I’m healthy, I have a good staff, I like what I’m doing and I’m continuing to work,” said Mizer. “If you retire or quit a job and you have a retirement package, you can still work somewhere else. We are just retiring and working in the same system.”
Although she is aware of the public’s perception of those that retire/rehire, she feels that she, and other elected officials, are being over scrutinized by the practice.
“We certainly should be held to standards,” Mizer said, but she questions whether elected officials should be held to higher standards than other citizens.
“I’m not trying to be defensive. I don’t want to be held to a different standard to anybody else because we all can be doing what we are doing,” Mizer said. “Our state legislatures, the people we send to Columbus, have made this into law.”
Former Ohio State Rep. Thom Collier said double dipping used to be illegal in the state of Ohio. Later, however, that was changed to accommodate school systems.
“There was a change [to the law] before I arrived in late 2000,” said Collier. “We altered it to say you have to disclose that you are going to [retire]. As an elected official you have to disclose it in a timely fashion in a public document. Of course, who knows that it’s filed? So we added that and we’ve had several prospective pieces of legislation that we’ve talked about to at least prohibit elected officials from [double dipping]. I know that the school districts are the ones that have fought it because they see it as a cost savings. But we’ve had proposals, and one of them was mine, that have all been shot down. They never got out of committee.”
Although his efforts to change this common practice among all those who contribute to PERS, not just elected officials, were unsuccessful, Collier has strong feelings on the subject.
“I think it’s unfair and unreasonable — and I know they can do it — for elected officials to do it,” he said. “I don’t think it represents a positive message to the folks we represent. It’s something the average taxpayer can’t do and I don’t think it’s reasonable for elected officials to do it.”
Since salaries are set by the Ohio Revised Code, the retire and rehire process does not play a roll in what these elected officials make on a yearly basis.
According to Rochelle Shackle, secretary for the Knox County Commissioners, Mizer’s salary for 2009 is $45,182, as is that of Mary Jo Hawkins, Knox County Clerk of Courts.
Knox County Probate/Juvenile Judge James Ronk makes $121,350 a year. According to Shackle, $9,810 is actually paid through the county’s general fund, the remainder is paid through the state.
According to Dennis Whalen, public information officer for the Supreme Court of Ohio, the county’s contribution to judges’ salaries is based on county population.
“Counties pay 18 cents per [person] up to $14,000,” he said. “That’s the same for every county.”
Ronk “retired” Jan. 31, 2003. His latest term commences Feb. 9.
Calls to Ronk were unreturned at press time.
Knox County Sheriff David Barber is the latest public official to take advantage of the opportunity to draw two paychecks.
“Technically, I did retire. What I am doing is through the Public Employees Retirement System, where elected officials have the ability to retire and then be reappointed,” Barber said in a voice mail message left late Wednesday afternoon. “Sandy Mizer, Mary Jo Hawkins and Judge Ronk have all done that previously. The only difference between them and myself, being a law enforcement officer — being the sheriff — I actually have to physically be out of the office for five days. I’m doing that. Basically today (Wednesday) was my effective date. I’m out of the office Dec. 31 and my new term starts Monday, Jan. 5, 2009, which is when I’ll be back in the office.
“In the interim, Capt. Dick Brenneman has been designated as the acting sheriff of Knox County, but it isn’t like I retired — it’s something elected officials are able to do through the Public Employees Retirement System, but as a law enforcement officer I do have to be physically away from the office for five days which is what I’m doing,” he said.
Barber’s salary for 2009 is $59,537.
Although Hawkins filed her letter of intent on Nov. 26, 2003, and her “retire” date is Dec. 31, 2004, she has yet to file any active retirement papers with OPERS.
“I retired at the end of the month in December and started a new term Jan. 1,” Hawkins said. “I had 35 years that I paid into it. At the time, PERS was making some changes in their health care coverage. They were going to cover my husband under the insurance with no pre-existing conditions.”
Hawkins said she has always been covered under her husband’s health insurance plan through his employer. Because the company was bought out, the Hawkinses were exploring their options if new insurance was needed.
When asked how she feels about the public’s perception of double dipping, Hawkins said, “It’s too bad. I would say my intent to retire as a public employee would be the same question as someone who wanted to keep working after they started receiving Social Security. It’s a shame it’s perceived as being unethical.”
Knox County Engineer Jim Henry filed an intent to retire on Dec. 21, 2007. Calls to Henry regarding the letter and his intentions were unreturned as he is out of the office until Monday.