On a morning when city officials honored departing District 2 Councilman Gary Lewis and District 3 Councilman Will Britt, a majority of Statesboro City Council approved a 28.6% increase in future retirement pay for current and future council members and mayors. It will benefit Lewis almost immediately and Britt 24 years from now.
The action increases the normal monthly retirement benefits for Statesboro elected officials from $35 to $45 per month for each year in office. This and another change in the city’s Georgia Municipal Employees Benefit System plan were approved Tuesday on a motion from Britt, seconded by Lewis. Councilman Travis Chance also voted “yes,” while Councilman Phil Boyum abstained and Councilman John Riggs voted “no.”
“There’s no benefit for anyone until they’re 65, and what we passed today actually just increases the amount of money the city puts into the retirement fund,” Britt said after the meeting.
As noted in a consultant’s report the city requested through the Georgia Municipal Association, the raise is projected to add $2,033 for now to the city’s overall annual cost of $583,170 for employee retirements. This is an increase of 0.02 percent in these expenses as portion of covered payroll.
“One member will be able to eligible to receive this new upgrade soon, Councilman Lewis, and if my math is correct, the next person that would be eligible to receive it would be Sam Jones, then the next person would be the mayor and then the five of us, including Jeff (Yawn),” and we’re 20 years out,” Britt said. “So there’s not a lot of people taking advantage of that.”
Britt based his comments on the order in which the officials will reach 65 years of age. Council members-elect Jones, who will succeed Lewis in January, and Yawn, who will succeed Britt, have not started their terms yet.
“What we did today doesn’t do anything for me for 24 years,” Britt said.
For Britt, who has served on the council 12 years, the raise would amount to $120 a month, for a total retirement pay of $540 a month or $6,480 a year. But he is 41 now and, as he noted, he cannot collect until he is 65.
Britt had city staff members looking into the raise before the previous meeting on Nov. 17. At that meeting, he said he had asked whether the raise might help previous elected officials. But City Attorney Alvin Leaphart told the council about a Georgia attorney general’s opinion that retroactive retirement raises violate the gratuities clause of the Georgia Constitution.
Lewis already qualifies
However, city officials say that the ordinance change, dated to be effective Tuesday, will apply to all current council members. This includes Britt and Lewis, who did not seek re-election and have one month remaining in their term.
Lewis, who is 65 now, can start drawing city retirement as soon as he leaves office, officials said. With his 17 years on the council, the raise amounts to $170 more each month for him, making his retirement pay before taxes $765 a month or $9,180 a year.
Approached after the meeting, Lewis said he didn’t know exactly how much the increase would give him but that it should help with his insurance.
“I sure appreciate it because I can use it, and I think I well deserve it after 17 years, because a lot of people don’t understand, we don’t make any money,” Lewis said. “I appreciate every bit of help and for the other guys.”
The current salary for regular council members is $7,575 a year, so Lewis will receive more in retirement than he has a council member. The salary for the mayor pro tem, currently Britt, rounds to $9,343, and the mayor’s salary is $18,685.
Riggs, who voiced the one “nay,” said he could not vote for a raise for himself.
“I couldn’t give myself a raise with taxpayer money, absolutely not,” Riggs said after the meeting. “I would be happy to vote for a raise for everyone else or whoever comes after me, but I couldn’t give myself a raise. Even though I won’t benefit from this for 20 years, the employees need the money more than I do and I feel like I would just be taking out of their pocket.”
In abstaining, Boyum said, “I’m going to sit this one out.”
During the meeting, Mayor Jan Moore briefly spoke against the retirement raise but noted that she would not have a vote unless a tie occurred.
“My problem with raising the retirement was that the motion was brought, by a councilman who did not choose to run again, at the very last meeting that they were serving,” Moore said later Tuesday. “If it was that important, it should have been brought up earlier.”
Answering Britt’s questions at the Nov. 17 meeting, city Human Resources Director Jeff Grant had referred to the GMA study, which is dated Oct. 20. Grant also said he learned from the GMA that, among member cities, the average retirement benefit for elected officials is about $25 a month for year of service. Britt then said that $35 a month is more typical for similar-size cities.
Moore had noted that Statesboro was already at that level.
“I think it’s consistent with neighboring counties and communities, and we run to serve, we don’t run to retire,” she said Nov. 17.
Also at that earlier meeting, Riggs had said he would vote against a raise if it came to a vote.
Actually, elected officials who serve at least 10 years can draw early retirement at age 55, but would then receive about half the total benefit, Grant said.
Another change, affecting how the retirement pay of regular city employees is calculated, was also approved in Tuesday’s motion. Previously, an employee’s final average earnings had been based on the employee’s five highest-paid years, even if those five years were not consecutive. Now, it will be based on the highest-paid five consecutive years.
The previous definition conflicts with Internal Revenue Service regulations and creates an administrative burden, Grant said.
The meeting had begun with a proclamation honoring Water-Wastewater Director Wayne Johnson for his 34 years of service to the city. He is retiring at the end of the year, and Moore announced that a separate reception for Johnson will be held in January.
Early in the meeting Moore presented Britt and Lewis with plaques honoring their years of service, and a reception for them was held outside the council chambers after the meeting.
After receiving the plaque, Lewis recited a verse from a song lyric, “May the work that I’ve done speak for me.”
Later in the meeting, Britt offered suggestions of projects he would like to see the city pursue or continue.
Jones and Yawn will be sworn in at the next regular City Council meeting, slated for 9 a.m. Jan. 5, 2016, Moore said.
Al Hackle may be reached at (912) 489-9458.