Editor’s note: A previous version of this story has been corrected to change the hire dates of those eligible for the buy-back program.
Just before former Mayor Kasim Reed left office, the city of Atlanta unveiled a short list of employees who were eligible for the retirement deal of a lifetime: a pension check until the end of their years.
It was a delightful opportunity, especially for high-ranking employees. Those who benefited include City of Atlanta Municipal Court Judge Herman Sloan, Councilwoman Natalyn Archibong, Reed’s former chief of staff Candace Byrd, employee benefits director Louis Amis and Kristen Denius, the attorney in the city’s law department who represented it at pension board meetings, records obtained by the Atlanta Journal-Constitution showed.
Employees who took the deal could come out $100,000 or more ahead compared with what they might have received from the self-directed retirement account offered to them when they were hired, experts told the AJC.
For example, Sloan, whose salary is $182,000 a year, could see a guaranteed pension check in the range of $6,000 to $7,500 a month, if he retires in about five years. Had he stayed in the city’s defined contribution plan – similar to a 401(k) – he may have had a fraction of that, limited by returns on the investments he chose and federal guidelines that cap how much he could sock away each year for retirement.
The pension deal was a farewell gift to Reed’s select employees, critics say, more lucrative than the end-of-year bonuses that the former mayor handed out. And while the 300-some employees eligible for the deal ranged from sanitation workers and customer service representatives, to department heads and top legal staff, only employees with large amounts of disposable cash could afford to take part.
That’s because to join the city pension, employees would have to roll over money from their existing plan and pay all the contributions they would have made had they been in the pension from the time they were hired, along with interest. That was a financial barrier that prevented most employees from opting in. Fewer than 90 of those eligible transferred to the pension.
“This was geared to help people in Kasim Reed’s administration make the most money they could in retirement,’’ said Charles Nash, formerly a member of the City of Atlanta General Employees’ Pension Fund. “These were people (who were) close to retirement, a lot of them are judges, lawyers, the cream of the crop. They did what’s best for them.’’
Pensioners sued the city over the so-called “buy-back” program early this year, alleging it would result in irreparable harm to the pension’s finances.
But in a court filing, the city argued that the program wouldn’t hurt the fund because most of those eligible couldn’t take part. “Only a small fraction of the 288 eligible members are even likely to have sufficient disposable funds to pay the amounts necessary to enroll in the General Employees’ Pension Plan, preventing those who do not from enrolling does not serve any public interest,” the city wrote.
Sloan did not return calls and emails requesting comment about why he switched plans and how it could affect his retirement income.
Reed did not respond to requests for comment.
Archibong, the only eligible council member to make the switch, said she chose to participate because there were no legal or ethical issues that prevented her from doing so. “I supported the ordinance because of the opportunity for more employees to move into a pension program that would provide ongoing financial certainty for city employees who are retiring,” she wrote in an emailed statement.
It’s now been months since employees transferred into the city’s pension plan. But the aftershocks are festering among employees and others who say it’s just another example of a back-handed deal in a city hall that is the focus of a major corruption investigation.
“The nepotism and friendships are rampant at city hall,” said Nash, a retired school teacher.
‘Nobody has told me nothing’
Employees hired between July 2001 and July 2005 were automatically placed in the 401(k)-style plan. The city extended eligibility for the new program to employees hired between Jan. 1, 2001 and Dec. 31, 2005.
In 2005, the city provided an opportunity for some of the employees to move into the pension plan.
But when the City Council agreed to the buy-back program in December 2017, Reed’s spokeswoman at the time told the AJC that employees had not been given adequate information about the 2005 offer. Jenna Garland explained that the program would address concerns from the employees about why they weren’t offered the pension plan.
To help employees decide if they wanted to take part this time, the city council also agreed to provide educational materials for affected employees who needed assistance. A council resolution instructed the city finance and human resources departments to provide appropriate education to eligible employees. Archibong, the councilwoman who took the buy-back, was its sponsor.
City officials later said they made every effort to publicize the program so that all eligible employees could take advantage.
Latrecia M. Parks, hired in 2002, was among those eligible. She works as an office assistant in the city’s sanitation department, earning just under $30,000 a year.
With her current salary, she could earn roughly $1,250 a month in retirement, had she joined the pension and worked to normal retirement age. That would be a steady paycheck, no matter what the stock market did.
But she didn’t buy in.
She told the AJC she couldn’t remember anyone contacting her to explain the option.
“Nobody has told me nothing,” Parks said.
Gina Pagnotta-Murphy, a former board member of the General Employees” Pension Fund, said the buy-back opportunity wasn’t widely circulated among general employees, who she said felt “blindsided” by the move. It was clearly fashioned for a select few, she said.
“Nothing went out to all the employees … nothing went out to say, you know you have an opportunity to get in … so we don’t know how that happened,’’ Pagnotta said. “In a perfect world, it should have been left the way it was.”
It’s not clear how the program will affect finances of the pension system, which already is underfunded by more than $570 million.
The council was advised, in a Nov. 29 report by Segal Consulting, that if the buy back was approved, the pension’s unfunded liability could grow by more than $30 million.
The report warns, though, that the calculations were soft estimates based on various assumptions, and the numbers could not be used for budgeting purposes. One of the assumptions was that there were 281 eligible employees. The council was told in December 2017 that 288 were eligible. But a record the city provided to the AJC listed more more than 300 eligible employees.
The City Council this past June approved the list of those interested in transferring to the pension.
Councilman Howard Shook, who heads the council’s executive finance committee, told the AJC in an email that the finance department had deemed the cost to transfer employees into the fund as “budget-neutral.” Shook, who was eligible for the transfer but did not take it, did not respond to repeated interview requests.
Leon F. “Rocky” Joyner Jr., the actuary who provides financial forecasts for the fund, said in an email response to questions from the AJC that he believed the new entrants would “have minimal impact” on how much the city would have to contribute on behalf of those who joined.
He did not address the question of whether it would add more red ink to the fund. That issue, he said, was still under scrutiny as part of an annual study that provides a snapshot of the pension’s financial health, including an estimate of benefit costs, as well as a real-time update of the pension’s shortfall.
Reed’s critics have said that it was irresponsible to offer the more generous pension benefits without understanding the true impact to the pension system.
When the council voted, city officials didn’t provide a detailed analysis of the impact to the unfunded liability, nor on how much the city would have to contribute on behalf of the newcomers, said Council President Felicia Moore, who voted against the plan in 2017.
“I didn’t support it because I wasn’t so sure we had done enough due diligence on how that would impact the defined benefit plan,’’ Moore told the AJC.
She also said that the timing of the move was noteworthy.
“If all the arguments were true at the time that we had to push everyone new into a defined contribution plan, what made it different was that now we were opening it up, getting to the end of the (Reed) administration,” she said.
The lawsuit filed by the General Employees pension board and joined by the City of Atlanta Police Officers Pension Fund argued that Reed’s plan would harm the fund.
Tony Biello, who served as chairman of the police pension for two decades, told the AJC it was absurd to bring on more liability to a pension system that is already underfunded.
“It’s beyond frivolous,’’ said Biello, who is retired after several decades as a city police officer. “Why would a pension fund want to incur more unfunded liability for people who failed to do their personal responsibility to themselves?”
Ken Allen, a former Atlanta police officer, said the lawsuit was ultimately dropped after the city threatened to individually sue some pension leaders.
In a court filing, the city had alleged that pension funds were being misappropriated to finance the lawsuit, which it contended was filed primarily for the benefit of some individual pension board members.
“It was a strategy the city used to put pressure on people who couldn’t afford the litigation to proceed,” said Allen, who is a regional representative for the National Association of Government Employees, a Massachusetts-based group of federal, state, county and municipal employees across the nation.
The AJC asked Chuck Carr of Southern Actuarial Services, the actuary for the city’s police pension fund, whether the addition of no more than 90 people would affect the General Employees fund’s bottom line. He said the police board also had asked him to evaluate the impact.
He said it was unlikely that the extra employees wouldn’t worsen the shortfall.
“First of all, that defies common sense … how you can add people at the 11th hour and not have any impact?” Carr said.
Ted Siedle, a Florida-based pension consultant who previously addressed the council when Reed wanted to cut pensions, said he was surprised to hear that, as the mayor departed, the city expanded the plan to dozens of employees.
“How can they afford people moving into the pension system?” he said. “It sounds like this is for the gilded few.”
HOW MUCH IS A CITY PENSION WORTH?
The city of Atlanta sponsors three defined benefit plans for police, fire and general employees. Each employee who is a member of one of these funds receives a monthly check upon retirement for the rest of their lives. If they are married, a surviving spouse also may benefit.
The monthly check is based on a mathematical calculation based on how many years the employee worked for the city, their average salary over their three consecutive highest-paid years, and a “multiplier,” which is set by the city council.In simplest terms, here’s how it could work:
Suppose you are member of the general employees’ pension. If you retire at age 60 with 25 years of service at an average monthly salary of $2,500, your normal monthly pension benefit would be roughly $1,562.The city manages pension investments, and the income is guaranteed.
Some employees are not in a city pension fund. Instead, they may be covered by a “defined contribution” plan, similar to a 401(k), to which they and the city have contributed. Employees choose investment options. Retirement income will depend on how much has been contributed to the account and how well the investments performed. Some participants will do better than others. No specific retirement income is promised. When the money runs out, it runs out.
Source: Summary Plan Description for the General Employees’ Pension Plan, Police Officer’s Pension Plan, Firefighter’s Pension Plan