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[Joseph Garnett, Jr. | Times (2007)]
In a time of economic strain, double dipping has become one of the fastest-growing parts of the Florida government budget, and lawmakers have only themselves to blame. The 8,000 employees who draw both a paycheck and a retirement check are just using the tricks that lawmakers gave them.
Those tricks need to be taken away.
As Times senior correspondent Lucy Morgan reported, the way some prominent politicians and public officials are pocketing money through these games is worse than double dipping. They get three scoops and never have to leave the ice cream parlor.
Collier County Judge Eugene Turner didn't even tell his colleagues he was taking a month off in order to qualify for "retirement" pay. The result is that he collects $7,700 a month in retirement and $145,080 in annual salary for precisely the same job he was performing all along.
Miami-Dade Community College president Eduardo J. Padron is an example of the triple dip. He entered the Deferred Retirement Option Program that awarded him $893,286 in lump sum benefits upon his retirement in 2006. But he didn't retire, and he now receives $14,631 a month in retirement pay and $328,860 in annual salary. And he kept the $893,286.
Pinellas Property Appraiser Jim Smith is in a class by himself when it comes to greed and gall. He entered the DROP program when voters overwhelmingly adopted term limits. After a judge threw out the limits, Smith reneged on his contract to retire. But he got the bonanza anyway: $423,157 in lump sum retirement benefits, $6,681 a month and $148,335 in salary. His real retirement will come none too soon.
This is, in a word, outrageous. And it is growing ever more costly. In the past five years, the number of double dippers has more than doubled. One reason is a loophole written into pension law in 2001through an amendment added to a bill in the final night of the session.
Sen. Mike Fasano, R-Port Richey, who was a House member at the time, told Morgan he didn't realize the amendment would let so many employees game the system. "This is absolutely not what the Legislature intended," he said. "It's so sad when you have elected officials who want to take advantage of this."
It may be sad, but not surprising. The Legislature has meddled with pension formulas for years, usually to please their police and firefighter constituencies with added benefits that are then paid by cities and counties. Sometimes, lawmakers are even more crass, as was the case in 2001, in trying to feather their own pension beds.
These eye-popping numbers are certain to catch the attention of taxpayers, and Gov. Charlie Crist deserves commendation for pressing a reluctant bureaucracy to release them. Lawmakers would do well to examine not only the 2001 amendment but the entire set of retirement and pension assumptions. The DROP program itself, even without its abuse, has led to a steady drain of talent in schools and law enforcement agencies.
The people who work for Florida government deserve fair pay and a dignified retirement, but not at the same time.
[Last modified February 25, 2008, 21:57:21]