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May 28, 2008

Counting pension credits for elected officials

When it comes to counting pension credits, the state retirement system allows local governments (i.e., elected officials themselves) to decide whether local elected officials should be considered full or part-time employees.

Elected officials do not usually have pre-set work hours. This makes it difficult to measure activity and accurately determine the number of days worked to be reported. In this type of situation, a different method must be used to determine days worked.
So explains the Employers Guide issued by the state pension system. To determine whether a county legislator or town council member should accrue pension credits as a full-time or part-time worker, it says the governing board should:
Establish, by board resolution..., the standard workday (not less than six hours per day for Tier 2, 3 and 4 members) for the position.

In other words, the members of the County Legislature, City Council or Town Board get to vote on their own pension status. The Employers Guide goes on to suggest each local official keep a log of his or her work activities for a month (see pages 102 to 106 of the Guide) The logs of all the elected officials in the municipality should be averaged to determine if the average elected official works 30 hours a week, qualifying them all for full-time pension credit.

So, what constitutes "work"? A neighborhood barbecue? An Eagle Scout ceremony? Chatting with a constituent at the supermarket? It's up to the local legislative body to decide whether various forms of schmoozing can mean a bigger pension. On the other hand, say county legislators pass a resolution saying their jobs require at least 30 hours a week. Does anyone monitor the laggards who put in only 20 hours?

Gannett News Service reported over the weekend that state Comptroller Thomas DiNapoli "expected to ask local governments to better account for how they calculate pension benefits for officials who sit on local boards."

Among county governments, the practices vary widely across the state, as Gannett reports.

A county legislator in Dutchess County receives part-time credit into the state's pension system, annual pay of $15,450 and health insurance that ends when the official leaves office.

But a county legislator in Monroe County gets a better deal: full-time pension credit, $18,000 a year and the option of lifetime health insurance after serving for 10 years on the board....

Of the 12 counties queried, eight--Albany [annual salary: $20,298], Broome [$12,500] Monroe [$18,000], Rockland [$32,000], Westchester [$49,200], Putnam [not listed in chart], Tompkins [$17,500] and Steuben [not listed] --provide full-time pension credits to their legislators.

The four others--Chemung [$12,165}, Dutchess [$15,450], Ulster [$10,000] and Ontario [$12,669] classify their legislators as eligible for only part-time pension credits.

State legislators, who are paid $79,500 plus stipends for chairing committees or other leadership roles, are considered full-time employees for the purposes of pension credits. Many have outside jobs as well.

Posted by Lise Bang-Jensen

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