Way back in 2013 April Havens over at the Mississippi Press began telling County Attorney Paula (Sue Nations Stennett) Yancey’s story of her tie-up with the Mississippi Public Employees Retirement System on behalf of the Jackson County Sheriff’s office everyone should have known there was a major problem with the county’s compliance with certain laws and regulations, mainly because the early reports of the exact nature of the problem were largely incomprehensible and it is with the first incomprehensible report that I start circa March 15, 2013:
Jackson County is going up against the state’s Public Employees’ Retirement System in an effort to save thousands of hours in leave that employees have accrued over many years.
County attorney Paula Yancey was in Chancery Judge Charles Bordis’ courtroom this afternoon to ask him to stop a March 26 hearing before the PERS board in Jackson.
Attorney Amy St. Pé, who is representing the Jackson County Sheriff’s Department, joined Yancey in court. Representing PERS were Alison O’Neal and Jane Mapp.
So there we have it folks, all the legal players are laid out neatly by Havens and for this we should be appreciative. But she loses me terming the legal dispute “a debate” because while courthouses may indeed occasionally house debates featuring master debaters what was going on with the attempted home cooking of Mississippi PERS in a Jackson County Courtroom was not a debating society prattling away discussing esoteric issues:
The debate cropped up near the end of 2011, Yancey said, when the county was copied on a letter sent from PERS to a retired sheriff’s department employee.
The employee had been retired for about 9 months when PERS said he was retired in error and asked him to repay money he had received, she said.
PERS then asked for a copy of the county’s personnel policy.
On May 31, 2012, the county received another letter from PERS “that made an administrative determination” and included an analysis and interpretation of the county’s leave policy, Yancey said.
The letter said that allowing current county employees to continue using leave would be considered a “prohibited donation,” she said, and asked the county to wipe the leave off its books.
Jackson County is arguing that PERS doesn’t have jurisdiction to interpret a county’s policy with total disregard for how the county interprets its own policy, nor does it have the power to dictate policy.
“They are so far outside their authority,” Yancey told the judge, noting that PERS doesn’t have a role in the process until an employee actually retires.
So are we getting this folks, those nasty PERS people have no business telling the County how much leave its employees may apply to the system in order to collect benefits. As a former auditor that knows a few things about Mississippi PERS I can assure everyone the system has some very clear rules about how much unused leave can be applied to creditable service but you’d never know that from that early 2013 story. You see the problem wasn’t with PERS at all, rather it was the County’s own leave policies that was too generous with PERS benefits, such not being the first time a local government tried using PERS in a way that is financially detrimental to the pension plan to the benefit of the local employees. Evidently Ms. Yancey and the County Controller, an Ex State Auditor’s office employee, did not get that memo as we fast forward a year to March 2014 and an update from County PR:
Jackson County supervisors today passed a resolution asking for the state Legislature, Gov. Phil Bryant and Lt. Gov. Tate Reeves to clarify the authority of the Public Employees’ Retirement System.
Specifically, the county — which has been at odds with PERS since 2012 on an issue of retirees’ accrued vacation and sick leave — is asking the legislators to clarify whether PERS has authority to interpret a local government’s personnel policies.
Since 2012, the county has been trying to save thousands of hours in leave that its employees have accrued over many years.
According to the resolution, PERS has retroactively revoked or reduced benefits and asked some retired employees — many of whom have been retired for more than a year and a half — to repay certain benefits.
This was followed by another update two days later reporting progress on the legislative front:
An amendment passed by the House today on Senate Bill 2257 could help Jackson County in its fight against the Public Employees’ Retirement System to save benefits for many county retirees.
Earlier this week, Jackson County supervisors formally asked the Legislature to clarify PERS’s authority, which has been questioned by the county in court hearings.
The amendment, penned by Jackson County state Rep. Manly Barton, does just that.
The short amendment reads, “No administrative agency of this state shall interpret the personnel policies of local governmental entities. Local governmental entities are the initial interpreters of its personnel policies, and same shall only be reviewed by a court of this state situated within the jurisdiction of the local governmental entity whose policy is in question.”
The issue of policy interpretation came up in the county’s dealings with PERS, which began in 2012. The issue deals with accrued vacation and sick leave that PERS says is not creditable to certain retirees’ retirement.
Thousands of hours are at stake, and the retirement system has asked several county retirees to repay benefits. PERS argues that the county’s personnel policy was vague and did not comply with regulation, but the county argues it did comply and that PERS doesn’t have authority to interpret its policies.
“If we wrote the policy, then obviously we should be the ones to interpret our own policies first,” said Barton, a former Jackson County supervisor. “Then if there’s evidence that the personnel policy somehow does not conform to state law, then the state agency can take it to court. Rather than us proving we are right, they’ve got to prove we’re wrong.”
Barton was evidently drinking Ms. Yancey’s brand of kool-aid but his amendment was struck from the final bill that passed. Even worse Jackson County was losing in court.
Now it is at this point I’d like to remind everyone of a major catastrophe that was brewing right at the same time that Barton was pumping his anti-PERs amendment and that was Singing River Health System’s financial house of cards was also unraveling in March 2014. This is important because the County supervisors are very clear that no tax money will be used to bail out the SRHS pension plan that was secretly terminated by the Supervisor’s appointees on the SRHS Board of Trustees late last year. With such parameters defining pension problem solutions in Jackson County, how did the Sups solve the problem they had with Sheriff’s Department Employees that had over collected pension benefits based on bad county leave policies?
I’d turn to April Havens for the answer but March of 2014 marked the last report on this matter that I could find. It seems as if the County Sups suddenly wanted to keep this matter quiet. Luckily for everyone I have the answer to this question.
You see folks the County Supervisors aren’t really against using tax money to bail out County employees that were over collecting PERS benefits because it was local tax money in combination with State Tax money that made PERS go away. (That’s right Hancock County you paid some too.)
I think the Sheriff’s Office retirees might owe Michael Watson a debt of gratitude for bringing home the bacon for Jackson County but in this election year the politicians evidently do not want credit for this, at least not while they are busy putting the screws to the Hospital retirees that were lied to for years by the Sup’s political appointees. And so it was written and thus it was done:
The $300,000 was matched with about $700,000 in local money bringing the total cost of the settlement about a cool million tax dollars and instead of taking credit for a good outcome to bad county policies the Sups went into hiding. The silence is deafening.
Meantime ostensibly the SRHS retirees should be happy with the scraps they are being offered and go away politely and quietly. It is quite a contrast.