For select few, quirk yields big boost in income

Compensation: A small group benefits from what some call `double dipping.'

December 01, 2003|By Jonathan D. Rockoff | Jonathan D. Rockoff,SUN STAFF

Before retiring two summers ago, George P. Poff Jr. was among the Baltimore County school system's highest-paid officials. Through a little-known quirk in Maryland's retirement law, he still is - and he's even better compensated now.

After stepping down as the county schools' lobbyist in Annapolis, Poff was quickly rehired. As a result, he now earns $101,970 a year in salary, plus a pension. Overall, he is grossing about as much as one of the district's deputy superintendents, who make $140,000 a year.

And if he stays in the job for five years, he will have a second pension waiting for him when he retires for good.

Poff, 61, and four other senior school administrators in Baltimore County enjoy this benefit, another example of district employees capitalizing on Maryland's retirement rules to boost their incomes.

Not every educator is eligible. The opportunity is limited to members of the teachers' pension system who before retirement moved into nonteaching staff jobs in Baltimore City and Baltimore and Montgomery counties, says J. Howard Pleines, director of legislation and research at the State Retirement and Pension System of Maryland. Each locality has its own pension system for nonteaching employees.

Such workers can retire, collect their pension and return to nonteaching jobs, as if they went to work for a new employer with its own system. There's one stipulation: They have to leave work for at least a month. But they don't have to reapply to get their jobs back.

"Clearly, it's double-dipping," says Carol T. Shaner, executive director of the Council of Administrative and Supervisory Employees, the union for Baltimore County principals and other administrators.

"We can find money to pay people twice for doing a job that other people would do and be paid once - that doesn't make sense, that's poor judgment and that's a waste of public funds," Shaner says.

Keith Brainard, research director of the National Association of State Retirement Administrators, says most states draft new retirement laws, rather than broaden the interpretation of current laws, to avoid confusion and abuse.

"It's important to clarify in statute the definition of such terms as `active participant,' `retired member' and other factors so that you're not having to interpret such things," says Brainard, who hadn't heard of a similar practice in other states.

Besides Poff, other rehired staffers in the county are Dale Janney, a building specifications expert in the facilities office, and David R. Evans, June B. Marshall and Margaret Penhallegon of the personnel office.

Their salaries range from Evans' $93,671 to Janney's $62,001. Although neither the state retirement system nor the five employees would disclose the size of their pensions, CASE estimates its members range from $25,000 to $50,000.

That means the rehired administrators make more than most principals.

Officials say the rehirings were legal and let them retain experienced staff.

"It was an organizational decision we had to make for the sake of continuity," says Superintendent Joe A. Hairston.

But Hairston says he won't allow any more employees to exercise the option.

The rehired officials deny they're double-dipping. They say they could work for a company or another school district while receiving their pensions.

"If I were in any other business, I'd be paid and getting my retirement at the same time," says Evans, 61.

It's unclear if any other retired workers in Maryland enjoy the benefit. Pleines says no records are kept because the rehired workers are retired as far as the agency is concerned.

It's also unclear how many workers are aware of the opportunity. Maryland's retirement system doesn't publicize the option and it isn't written into any law, regulation or court decision.

By requesting a legal opinion from the state retirement system, Janney, now 58, was the first to learn of the option. The rest heard by word of mouth.

Poff says he learned from Pleines, and Hairston soon approved the rehiring.

Poff says he didn't have to reapply, and he took a month off without cleaning out his desk. In fact, during that time, he returned to his office "because there were things that had to be done," he says.

Poff adds, "This gives me an opportunity to serve a county I love, and a superintendent I believe in, and be able to have some margin for the future."

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