By Ed Runyan
Trumbull County Sheriff Thomas Altiere says changes the state made to the Ohio Public Employees Retirement System prompted him to retire at the end of this year rather than wait.
He suspects the changes also motivated several other elected officials as well.
In 2010 and 2011, seven elected officials filed paperwork as required by state law indicating they would retire before the start of their next term in office.
They are Altiere, Trumbull County Prosecutor Dennis Watkins, county Commissioner Dan Polivka, Family Court Judge Pam Rintala, Warren Law Director Greg Hicks, Warren Auditor David Griffing and Niles Mayor Ralph Infante.
Common Pleas Court Judge W. Wyatt McKay and Warren Municipal Court Judge Thomas Gysgem filed their retirement paperwork several years before that.
Altiere, who’s been sheriff nearly 20 years, was re-elected to another four-year term in November but indicated the term that begins Jan. 7 would be his last.
The sheriff says the Legislature, which passed several changes in September that reduced the cost to run the state retirement system, could continue to make changes to the system in the years to come that would affect his retirement benefits.
But retiring effective Dec. 31 will give him a better chance of hanging on to two especially important parts of the retirement system: health insurance for his wife and the 3 percent cost-of- living increase for retirement benefits, Altiere said.
Retiree health care for spouses will be phased out over several years starting in 2015 as a cost-saving move, according to OPERS.
As for cost-of-living increases, since 2002, state retirees have received a flat 3 percent increase each year in pension payments, but under the new law, pension increases will instead be based on the Consumer Price Index, as does the Social Security Administration, OPERS says.
Altiere said as the law reads now, his wife will stay covered on his retirement insurance, and he’ll continue to get 3 percent increases in his retirement benefits.
OPERS actually used the Consumer Price Index before 2002, and Social Security has used it since the 1970s, said Gordon Gatien, government relations manager for OPERS.
OPERS said the changes the Legislature approved were needed because the number of state retirees has increased dramatically since the 1960s, when there were 31,000 statewide. Today there are 185,000, and the state expects the number to rise to 370,000 by the 2050s. One reason is that people are living longer.
Over the years, some have criticized the system that allows public employees to receive both pension and salary at the same time, so-called “double-dippers.”
A year ago, state Rep. Rex Damschroder, a Republican from Fremont, sponsored a bill that would have ended the practice, but it didn’t get far.
Sean O’Brien, state representative from Brookfield, said he thinks the measure will resurface in the next few years.
O’Brien said he has mixed emotions on the issue: Keeping a veteran government employee, especially when he or she is willing to take a lower salary, saves the government money.
But the pay of judges and most other elected officials is set by law, so paying them less in retirement isn’t an option, O’Brien said.
The salary of public officials is public information, but retirement amounts are not.
For example, the Trumbull County sheriff earns $94,691, the prosecutor $115,703, common pleas court judge $121,350, county commissioner $76,976, Warren law director $86,657, and Warren auditor $80,745.
Their pensions are based on the average of the three highest-paid years of public employment multiplied by 2.2, multiplied by the number of years employed.
So someone earning $100,000 per year in his three highest-paid years with 30 years of service would get an annual retirement of about $66,000.
Part of the new law is that someone’s salary will be calculated after Jan. 7 based on the five highest-paid years.
The salary of Rose Ann DeLeon, executive director of the Western Reserve Port Authority, had been questioned in recent months at $155,000 annually. But several Trumbull County officials will earn more than $155,000 in 2013, when adding retirement to their salary.
Altiere says double dipping may seem unfair to some people, but it’s “the same thing basically” as what’s done in the private sector.
“People who retire from Packard Electric or GM, they go out and get another job,” he said.