New Macon-Bibb pensions still under discussion

jgaines@macon.comMarch 21, 2013 

Retirement benefits for current Macon and Bibb County workers and future employees of the Macon-Bibb County consolidated government got earnest debate but no decision Thursday.

“It is a very delicate situation for us,” said former state Sen. Miriam Paris, who chaired the meeting of the Human Resources Committee of the task force working on merging the city and county governments.

Though the new government will take over in January 2014, the group won’t make any snap decisions, Paris said. Members want to make sure current and future employees are dealt with fairly, she said.

The main discussion centered on how to close the city and county’s current pension plans – not end them, but keep new people from entering the system.

The working assumption so far has been a “soft freeze.” That means not allowing anyone hired by the incoming consolidated government to join Bibb County’s current pension system or the two that Macon maintains; but letting anyone hired by the existing governments before Jan. 1, 2014, remain in the current systems and keep accruing benefits throughout their careers.

The alternative is a “hard freeze,” which would pay current employees the benefits they accrue until the government changeover, but then enter them in the pension system the new government creates.

Pension consultants Ed Koebel and Patti Keesler agreed a “hard freeze” might be legally possible but would be difficult.

Mayor Robert Reichert said the task force’s discussion and language in the consolidation charter itself virtually rules out a “hard freeze.”

“I don’t think that’s an option for us even to consider,” he said.

In working on tentative financial models, consultants have assumed the new government’s pension structure may be roughly similar to Bibb County’s current plan, Koebel said.

Macon police and all Macon-Bibb firefighters are under a pension system that’s a replacement for Social Security, rather than a supplement. Keesler said state and federal rules now require that all employees must be covered by Social Security unless their pensions essentially duplicate Social Security benefits or exceed them.

That raises the question of how to handle city police officers who will become Bibb County sheriff’s deputies next year, Sheriff David Davis said. He asked whether they would be “grandfathered out, I guess you could say, of the system,” or brought under Social Security. And, Davis said, what about firefighters, whose status won’t change?

With barely more than nine months left before the employee transfer, those questions remain open for further study by consultants and deliberation by the task force.

To contact writer Jim Gaines, call 744-4489.

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