Macon council ready to move on police, fire pension changes

A majority of Macon City Council seemed satisfied Monday afternoon by their speakerphone conversation with pension-law expert Jeff Banish, possibly paving the way for passage of legal-language changes to the Macon Fire and Police Employees Retirement System plan.

Nine of the 15 council members were in on the call, including four who voted against a nearly identical proposal on Aug. 7.

The IRS requires some alterations to the plan’s legal terms to keep it “qualified.” If the amended plan isn’t sent to the IRS by Oct. 2, pension recipients could face higher taxes. But exactly how to word the changes has been argued over for months, by the pension board, council, and a tag-team of attorneys for all sides.

Some retirees, led by current pension board member Jimmy Hartley and former board member Charlie Bishop, have repeatedly alleged that Mayor Robert Reichert is trying to cut off or diminish their benefits through sneaky legal maneuvers. Reichert has emphatically denied that that’s the case.

Banish, an Atlanta-based attorney for law firm Troutman Sanders, and attorney Helen Cleveland, hired by pension fund members, have agreed on a final list of changes and jointly recommend that council pass them, Reichert said.

The version agreed upon by Banish and Cleveland has a few minor alterations not agreed to by the IRS, but Banish said he doesn’t think those “clarifications” are enough to draw IRS objection.

Councilman Henry Gibson, a retired Macon police captain and pension plan beneficiary, said his previous opposition had been based on the belief of some pensioners that the changes could somehow be used to cut benefits. He asked Banish to say plainly if that was possible.

“I think the plan that has been agreed to by myself and Ms. Cleveland is simply an update of IRS legal requirements, and does not change one bit any benefits that participants may have had prior to this amendment,” Banish replied.

The plan rules do include the ability to terminate the plan -- but that authorization has always been in there, and just means accrual of any new benefits could be halted, he said.

Anyone vested in the plan by the date of its termination is legally guaranteed to receive his or her benefits in full, Banish said.

The ordinance must pass two consecutive regular council meetings before it’s sent to the IRS. Reichert said he wants to bring it up for a first vote Aug. 21, and for a second Sept. 4.

In other business, the council Public Properties Committee:

Voted 4-0, with Councilwoman Elaine Lucas temporarily absent, to extend Macon Transit Authority’s contract to manage Terminal Station for another six months. The city is waiting on clearance from state and federal agencies to re-bid the management agreement, since those agencies provided grants to renovate the building. Committee Chairman Rick Hutto said the transit authority, which occupies part of the building, agreed to manage the building temporarily at no cost to the city.

Approved a resolution 5-0, after Lucas arrived, to change the name “Rosa Parks Park” to “Rosa Parks Square.” Councilman Ed DeFore’s resolution calls for placement of an identifying marker in the park across Poplar Street from City Hall.

But Hutto said the legislation creating the park named it “Rosa Parks Square” originally, despite later confusion; so the new resolution’s effect would be to set up the marker. Lucas said she wants it to include historical information on Parks, not just her name.

To contact writer Jim Gaines, call 744-4489.