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Once a pension holdout, city attorney can cash in

By CHRISTOPHER GOFFARD

© St. Petersburg Times, published April 6, 2001


TAMPA -- Twice, with a humbler salary than the one he commands today, City Attorney James Palermo declined to buy into the city pension. On Thursday, a divided City Council decided that shouldn't matter: He can buy into it retroactively.

"We don't think it's fair," Walter Edwards, a city fleet maintenance worker, told the council before the vote. He held a petition with 49 signatures of city workers opposing the pension plan. He said he gathered them in a day. "He's had two opportunities and turned both of them down. Now he wants to jump on the bandwagon.

"It's kind of like saying, I wish someone would give me the chance to go back in time and invest in Microsoft," Edwards said. "If you want to give somebody a golden parachute, use somebody else's silkworm."

The council was unmoved, voting 4-2 to endorse legislation that would allow Palermo to receive $43,000 annually for the rest of his life by paying $95,000 now to make up for contributions he would have made since starting work for the city, plus interest.

Palermo, 63, says he didn't buy into the plan when he started as an assistant city attorney in 1967 because he didn't think he would outlast Dick Greco's first term as mayor. He says he declined a second chance to join the plan in the mid 1980s because he couldn't afford it.

Palermo's current salary is $121,388, and he has been in the six-figure range since the mayor gave him the city's top legal job in 1995. Since an employee's pension is determined in part by an average of his highest three years' salary in the last 10 years of employment, that makes it more lucrative than ever for Palermo to buy into it.

Council members Gwen Miller, Rose Ferlita, Linda Saul-Sena and Mary Alvarez voted to approve the measure.

"I think I can understand the logic of Mr. Palermo not pursuing the pension the first time around," Ferlita said in an interview, adding that city attorneys often don't last beyond a single administration.

And the second time he declined? Ferlita said she was sympathetic on that score, too, pointing to the more than 30 years Palermo has worked for the city. "When you come back with that many years of service, I felt I had an obligation to support that."

Council member Bob Buckhorn, who along with Charlie Miranda opposed the measure, said in an interview: "We don't do the same thing for the folks that turn a wrench and dig ditches for the city of Tampa. It's going to be awfully hard for the administration to justify it to the rank and file troops that the rules are somehow different for the people higher up."

Last year, a measure to let Palermo buy into the city's pension fund was killed by the local legislative delegation before it got to Tallahassee. This year, the delegation approved it, after the language of the bill was modified to shift focus from Palermo himself to city employees in his category. And legislators also required the council to agree. To pass, it must still be approved by the Legislature.

"It's over in City Council," Palermo said Thursday, adding he believed the council did the right thing. "It's up to Tallahassee."

- Christopher Goffard can be reached at (813) 226-3337 or goffard@sptimes.com.

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