Monday, March 10, 2014
AUGUSTA - Ten Maine public employees took in an average of $168,000 each last year by collecting a salary and a state retirement pension at the same time, data from the Maine Public Employees Retirement System shows.
The 10 -- including seven school superintendents and one assistant superintendent -- top the list of Maine's so-called double dippers, a group that is once again drawing the attention of state lawmakers.
In all, there were 1,228 Mainers working for the state and for local school districts while also collecting their Maine state pensions in 2011, the state data shows. These do not include public-sector employees now collecting salaries from 488 municipalities while also collecting benefits from the state pension program.
Some, including all of the top 10 earners, never actually stopped working. They simply retired for one day and then returned to work.
Others left jobs but returned to work years later for financial or other reasons.
Most of the double dippers -- 86 percent -- work for Maine school districts, which employ most of the state's public work force. They range from experienced superintendents, who remain in high demand, to retired teachers who fill in as substitutes.
The rest work in state government.
The practice is not new, but it has come under increased scrutiny in Maine and other states at a time when unemployment is high and many in the private sector have seen their retirement accounts dwindle.
"It looks bad to taxpayers," said Ron Snell, a public pension expert with the National Conference of State Legislatures. "It looks bad to people on Social Security."
Defenders of the practice say it keeps experienced and skilled employees in the work force. And because the state no longer has to make retirement contributions for someone who is technically retired, retirees are a bargain, they say.
Critics, however, say some public employees take advantage of the system to get a hefty raise and that the practice clogs the career ladder for younger workers, particularly at a time when jobs are scarce.
"We clearly are interested in preserving institutional memory, but we're also equally concerned, and are hearing more complaints about, double-dipping abuse," said Sawin Millett, commissioner of the state Department of Administrative and Financial Services.
Millett, the state's 74-year-old chief budget officer, is himself on the list of double dippers.
He has served in multiple administrations and in the Legislature, and officially retired in 2000 at age 62. Last year, Millett earned a $101,215 salary as part of the LePage administration while also collecting $24,951 in pension benefits, according to the retirement system data.
The LePage administration backed return-to-work restrictions that took effect last fall, including a new limit on incomes for workers who also are receiving pensions. Now, however, the Legislature is considering loosening those restrictions for teachers and state employees.
MaineToday Media obtained pension and salary records from the state retirement system through a Freedom of Access Act request. An analysis of the data shows that:
• Ninety-seven of those on the list made more than $100,000 in combined pension and income in 2011.
• The average pension is $31,068 a year.
• The average pay was $20,828 a year.
• Portland's school department, the state's largest district, employs 45 retired workers, the most for any one employer.
Municipal workers who are collecting state pensions are considered a different category, and are not included in those numbers. The practice is not uncommon in cities and towns, however.
Portland Fire Chief Fred Lamontagne, for example, began collecting his pension in June 2010 and receives $47,376 a year in state pension benefits, along with a city salary of $96,907, according to state and city records.
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