Augusta pensioners eye benefit increase

D. Williams

With an eye on the millions of dollars remaining in the city’s oldest pension funds – its 1945 and 1949 plans – a handful of retired city and county employees are reviving a push to increase their monthly benefits.

Former Clerk of Court Lester Newsome, speaking for the 10 members and five survivors drawing benefits from the 1945 plan, said most collect significantly less than six former county department heads encouraged to retire under the same plan during consolidation.
Newsome told members of Augusta’s pension and audits committee the group wants an additional $500 a month.

“How’s that going to affect the $6 million if we live three years more?” he asked.

The plan’s members range in age from a 56-year-old survivor to a 96-year-old former employee who retired in 1981, according to city finance data. Most are in their 80s, with annual benefits ranging from $13,385 to $37,532, with the exception of six who retired under the “enhanced provisions” offered during consolidation and collect between $38,709 and $75,906 annually.
Those department heads collect nearly 80 percent of their salaries, noted plan member Thad Calhoun, who retired from the sheriff’s department and joined Newsome at the Tuesday meeting.

“I think they need a raise,” said former Augusta Police Chief Freddie Lott, now president of the 1949 pension committee. “I think we need a raise, too.”

While the 1945 plan’s fund balance is some $6.4 million, likely sufficient to cover the requested increase throughout the lives of its members, if the city tinkers with the plan’s benefits in any way it must – by law – increase its contribution to the plan, Finance Director Donna Williams said.

While Augusta currently pays $300,000 into the 1945 plan annually to keep it “fully vested,” increasing the benefit by $500 a month for the retirees – meaning about $90,000 a year – will require the city pay an additional $100,000 into the fund, said city attorney Jody Smitherman.

Mayor Deke Copenhaver said the media’s presence Tuesday would ensure that if Augusta increases the pensions of some of its retirees, “others will say ‘we want the same consideration,’ ” although plan members have been asking for increases for years.

“It has repercussions,” and the commission has been unwilling in recent years to raise property taxes, Copenhaver said.

In the 1949 plan are 198 retirees and 60 people still employed by the city. Its assets total $68.37 million, and the city pays $1.2 million into the fund annually to keep it fully vested, Williams said.

“What if we all go up or down tomorrow?” asked Com­missioner Marion Williams, a former firefighter and member of the 1949 plan.

Should every member die at once, the plans pay their estates what they’ve paid in, with remaining funds going back to the city, subject to restrictions, Smitherman said.

In the end, at Com­mis­sioner Wayne Guilfoyle’s suggestion, the committee voted to have its actuary project
the cost to the city of a $250 benefit increase to all members of the 1945 and 1949 plans.

Both plans are closed to new members, and most city employees participate in the Georgia Municipal Employees Benefit System. That includes 2,047 active employees and 393 retirees and 96 terminated employees drawing benefits. The city must pay $5.2 million into the plan each year.

After the pension meeting Tuesday, Augusta commissioners took the following actions:

• Sent a $50 million list of Engineering projects or services to be funded using special purpose local option sales tax dollars to committee, after a vote to approve it failed 5-4;

• Instructed Procurement Director Geri Sams, Dis­ad­vantaged Business Enterprise Coordinator Yvonne Gentry and the law department
to assess what Augusta needs to do to collect disparity data to reinstate a gender-
and race-conscious program in contract awards and re-
turn with findings in 45 days;

• Referred an amendment to the city’s planning code changing requirements for “stealth” cellular towers, resembling trees, to committee after an AT&T and wireless lobbying group representative said he needed to review the change;

• Accepted as information a request from student body president Amanda Bryant on behalf of the Georgia Regents Uni­versity Summerville Cam­pus student senate for a crosswalk and sidewalk near McDowell Street and Arsenal Boulevard; and

• Declined by 5-4 vote to approve raising Sams’ salary to $113,000.

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