Originally created 12/29/96

Early retirement incentives attract many takers



"Out with the old, and in with the new" has special meaning for Augusta's consolidated government as 1996 comes to a close.

More than 100 employees have taken advantage of enhanced early retirement benefits designed to change the bureaucracy and get some of the highest-paid employees off the payroll.

Sixteen of the retirees were top officials, only five of whom were still officially on the job last week.

They were License and Inspections Director Miller Meyer, Bush Field Manager Steve Atha, Daniel Field Manager Robert Hayes, Old Government House Director Barbara Sasser and Main Street Augusta Director Sam Fusselle, said Administrator Randy Oliver.

The others were either on sick leave, taking vacation or had been sent home early.

For example, former suburban Water and Sewer Department Director George McElveen has been on sick leave and vacation since July, a few weeks after he was passed over as permanent director of the consolidated department.

And interim Administrators Linda Beazley and Charles Dillard were informed via letter from Mayor Larry Sconyers earlier this month their services were no longer needed. Mr. Sconyers said he was just the messenger for the full board, concerned about the old administrators advising the new one.

Mrs. Beazley and Mr. Dillard were retiring anyway to take advantage of the benefits that give eligible employees credit for 10 extra work years.

Mrs. Beazley, Mr. Dillard and six other former department heads also received a maximum severance payment of $25,000, as "displaced department heads." The other eight retiring department heads received lesser severance payments, which were based on one week's pay multiplied by the number of years worked.

Taxpayers will bear the cost of the cash payments, but the four pension plans are fully funded. The government now contributes to only one of them, officials said.

Retirement benefits range from Ms. Beazley's $70,164 a year to Mrs. Sasser's $6,731.

Employees also were paid for accrued vacation time.

Commissioner Moses Todd said the retirement offer was designed to make the government more efficient.

"If we were going to change the way we do things, we had to change the leadership as far as the bureaucracy leadership goes," he said. "We've done that pretty much."

Now it's time to give the remaining upper-level and middle-level management total quality management training, he said.

"And if we don't do that we would probably lose the opportunity to make significant changes in the way we do business."

Unlike Comptroller Butch McKie, who has touted the benefits of getting higher-paid employees off the payroll and into the pension funds, Mr. Todd said he has never believed the plan would save much money directly.

"We're retiring folks, but in most cases we're hiring folks back," he said. "And when you're hiring folks with education to replace folks that didn't necessarily have education it's probably going to cost you more money."

Potential savings will be realized from doing things more efficiently, he said.

"You know, the individuals that's left or that come in are not necessarily going to be interested in protecting their old power base," he said.

In all, 104 of the 192 employees eligible for early retirement have left or will be leaving, motivated by the generous benefits.

They include Attorney Jim Wall's administrative clerk, Helen B. Sally, who was paid by the government. Mr. Wall's firm has re-hired Mrs. Sally, and the city has hired another assistant to do the government's legal work in his office.

Eight Bush Field employees also are retiring, 14 from the fire department, 10 from the sheriff's department, 10 from the transit and seven from waterworks.

One who missed the golden parachute is human resources manager Gail Scott, who was born one hour and 49 minutes too late to be eligible for early retirement.

To be eligible, an employee must be 50 years old by Dec. 31. Mrs. Scott will be 50 on Jan. 1.

She asked for special consideration because it was so close but was refused.

"It's not like they never made an exception before," she said.

Benefits are based on years of service and the type of plan to which the employee contributed.

For example, an employee in the former county's 1945 plan with 30 years of service who averaged $48,000 a year in a base period would normally draw $28,800 a year for life, which is 60 percent of the person's pay. That same person retiring under the "enhanced early retirement" would draw $38,400, or 80 percent of annual pay.

Employees in the 1945 plan do not pay Social Security taxes and will not receive Social Security benefits associated with their employment with the government. Those in other plans do pay those taxes, and the local government matches their contributions.

Mr. Meyer, who was head of Richmond County's personnel department and its license and inspections department from 1981 until 1987, said he's glad to be retiring now but would have left in March even without the added incentive.

"I'm still in good health, and I want to do some things," he said. "I've got a $100,000 motor home, and I want to put some miles on it. I want to travel some and hunt and fish. My health is good. My wife's health is good. And I was leaving in March, regardless."