Macon pension plan squeaks by council committee

A proposal to let Macon’s mayor and City Council members participate in the city’s pension plan squeezed through a council committee Wednesday.

In a 3-2 vote, the Employee Development and Compensation Committee voted in favor of the measure, which was sponsored by Councilman Rick Hutto. If the full council approves the plan next week, it will allow elected officials with at least five years in office to tap into pension benefits as long as they are willing to pay their way into the plan.

The idea has generated heated debate: Supporters say the proposal simply brings the city in line with other local governments that provide pension benefits to their elected officials — including Bibb County. But unlike many of those counties and municipalities or even Macon’s general full time employees, the mayor and council members would have to contribute to the plan entirely on their own.

“It is, in effect, a savings account,” said Hutto, adding that no taxpayer dollars are required. “It is not illegal. It is not unethical. There is no appearance of impropriety whatsoever.”

Opponents, however, say approving the plan sends a bad message, particularly since it came on the same day that the committee tabled consideration of resolutions to increase the cost of living raise provided annually to city retirees. Also, they said, part-time employees who currently get no pension benefit are left out in the cold while council members appear to be lining their own pockets.

“I think perception is reality, and we’re voting to give the mayor and council a benefit,” said Lauren Benedict, the committee’s chairwoman. “And in difficult economic times, that is the last thing we should do.”

Councilman Tom Ellington joined Benedict in voting against the plan. He said he doesn’t see the need for it.

“If it does pass (the full council), I will not participate in the plan,” he said.

To be eligible, a mayor or council members essentially must be elected to two terms in office to get at least five years in office. They would need to take a deduction from each paycheck to contribute whatever portion of their salary is equal to the same amount that the city is paying into the pension plan for full time employees.

The net result, said Human Resources Director Ben Hubbard, is that council members who buy into the plan would receive $125 per month upon retirement while the mayor would get $1,273 each month. Those benefits are based on council members’ yearly salary of $10,000 and the mayor’s annual pay of $100,505.

Hutto said his primary motivation for proposing the plan now was to provide a pension for Mayor Robert Reichert, who left a lucrative law practice to serve the city full time. And it only made sense, Hutto said, to include council members in the change.

Others on council supporting his proposal — including Employee Development committee members Lonnie Miley, Elaine Lucas and Charles Jones — were dismissive of complaints that their decision would look bad to the general public. How could it appear self serving, they argued, if the plan is optional and council members are responsible for funding their own participation?

“There are people who always find something to muddy stuff or make stuff ugly or something that it’s not,” said Lucas, adding that she already collected a pension from the school system and did not need the extra benefit from the city.

Added Miley: “The general public could really give a damn about our pension plan. They just want us to do our job.”

There has been no shortage of disagreement on the subject, however. Since Hutto raised the issue late last month, the city’s General Employee Pension Board expressed opposition to the ordinance although the board has no legislative role in the matter.

At the time, an assistant city attorney said she thought Macon’s ethics ordinance would prevent council members from even voting to allow their participation in the pension, although City Attorney Pope Langstaff said Wednesday that was not the case.

“I don’t have any doubt about that,” he said. “It is legal.”

But that did not prevent some council members from being upset.

“I don’t care who brings it to the table. If it’s wrong, it’s wrong,” Councilman James Timley told the employee development committee. “People elected you to do a job, not fatten your wallets.”

To contact writer Matt Barnwell, call 744-4251.