The defined benefit plan, or pension, Bulloch County commissioners agreed to make available to the county government’s nearly 300 full-time employees last November – after more than a year of study and discussion – is now set for launch July 1. The commissioners unanimously approved two resolutions Tuesday to make it so.
July 1 is the start of the new fiscal year, for which the county is budgeting support for the new pension plan. One of the resolutions that were approved 6-0 Tuesday morning freezes the county’s previous 401(a) “defined contribution” plan so that it is not open to new employees but leaves accumulated amounts in place for current employees who don’t wish to buy into the new system. The other resolution formally adopts the new pension plan and some attached “plan amendments” about how it will be carried out.
The new plan, like the old one, is administered through Association County Commissioners of Georgia, or ACCG, Retirement Services.
“The existing employees will be presented … with two options: relinquishing their 401(a) balance in exchange for service credits for years they’ve already worked or keeping that 401(a) balance and entering the defined benefit plan with zero credit for their previous years of service,” county Human Resources Director Cindy Mallett told the commissioners.
She summarized the pension plan and briefly reviewed how it was developed.
The plan carries a normal retirement age of 65, with five years of service required to be vested, and a 1.5% “multiplier.” This means that benefits will be determined by multiplying 1.5% of an employee’s average annual pay – from the highest paid five consecutive years of the last 10 – by their total years of service.
Retirement as early as age 60 is available as an option, subject to certain criteria.
The county is imposing a “blackout period” of six or 12 months depending on an employee’s age, requiring anyone who is eligible the first day the pension is funded to wait before they can retire.
The commissioners back in late 2021 authorized a study for potential changes in the retirement plan, and in February 2022 authorized a cost analysis by ACCG Retirement Services.
Capt. Marcus Nesmith of the Bulloch County Sheriff’s Office led a “study group” of about a dozen county employees from various departments who worked with ACCG benefits staff in examining various options. Employee group members expressed a preference for a defined benefit plan.
By August, the study group had arrived at a specific preferred option, but County Manager Tom Couch recommended a 60-day “due diligence” period for the staff to sort out the details and receive feedback from more employees. Staff members delivered a report Oct. 18, 2023, but at that time the commissioners by a 4-3 decision, with Chairman Roy Thompson casting his tiebreaker vote, tabled action to a later meeting.
Then at their next meeting in November, the commissioners quietly and unanimously approved creating the pension plan. At that time, officials noted that it existed only in outline and would take another six months to implement.
“So that brings us to now,” Mallett said. “During the period between then and now we’ve worked closely with ACCG Retirement to draft all of the documents necessary to enact the change, and several rounds of review and edits were conducted.”
Commissioner Timmy Rushing made the motion on one of Tuesday’s resolutions to complete the transition in retirement plans, seconded by Commissioner Toby Conner. Commissioner Jappy Stringer made the motion on the other resolution, seconded by Rushing.
During commissioner comments time later in the meeting, Rushing thanked Thompson and the other commissioners, Mallett and Nesmith and others who worked on the retirement plan changeover.
“I think that’s what the vast majority of the employees wanted, and I think it will make them happy, and I think it will make it a better workplace,” Rushing said. “There are a lot of people that worked real hard on that, and I thank them.”
As of October, the plan was projected to carry an initial liability of almost $22.7 million, but the county will reduce this by transferring assets from the existing 401(a) plan to the new pension program. This requires buy-in by a significant number of current employees, exchanging their 401(a) savings for years of service credited toward their future monthly benefit amount.
The county’s projected annual contribution to the program, at 7.4% of salaries, the recommended level, was $1,137,600 as of last fall. However, the county had budgeted $1.8 million last year for retirement contributions with the previous plans.
It has contributed 6.5% of salaries to the 401(a) accounts and a partial match of employees’ contributions to these and to “457” accounts. As the pension is implemented, these contributions will cease, although employees can still contribute to their 457 accounts.