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Saturday, June 11, 2011

State’s public-service payoff: Appointed, elected officials

A select group of retirees can double dip at a level that’s second to none.

Unlike the majority of state pensioners, retirees who are appointed or elected to posts can work full time in the public sector while collecting complete pensions from the New Hampshire Retirement System.

Several public officials take advantage of this lawful practice, including retired Merrimack Police Chief Michael Milligan, who now serves as a state liquor commissioner.

Earl Sweeney retired as Belmont police chief and worked as head of the Police Standards and Training Council before becoming state assistant safety commissioner.

Department of Corrections Commissioner William Wrenn is a retired Hampton police chief.

Bruce Cheney, a retired Laconia police chief, leads the state Division of Emergency Services, which oversees the 911 system.

And in March, retired Dover Fire Chief Perry Plummer was chosen to lead the state Fire Standards and Training and Emergency Medical Services Division.

These five appointees work full-time post-retirement jobs while drawing full pensions.

Their ability to work 40 hours a week differs from the majority of state pensioners who are limited to part-time hours in a public sector job so they can remain eligible for a retirement check.

The state Legislature recently passed a bill that limits – and effectively reduces – the number of part-time hours pensioners can work in a state or municipal job to 32.

This change came about because some pensioners have given new meaning to “part time” by working close to 40 hours a week.

But in its attempt to boost the finances of the state Retirement System, lawmakers didn’t try to reform the law governing pensioners who work as appointees and elected officials.

It’s a long-held practice once followed by retired Dover Police Chief Dick Flynn, who was appointed safety commissioner by seven governors, and will continue to be followed by current appointees such as Cheney, Sweeney, Wrenn, Plummer and Milligan.

A 33-year veteran of the Merrimack police force, Milligan was nominated to the Liquor Commission by Gov. John Lynch. He retired from the town of Merrimack in March, and was sworn in to the three-member commission in April.

Milligan earns $86,131 in his new job, according to the Liquor Commission. He also receives a state pension of an unknown amount; the Retirement System doesn’t provide the pension figures of retirees.

In 2010, Milligan’s compensation from the town of Merrimack was $106,567; in 2009, it was $108,193; in 2008, it was $103,222.

For police officers, a Retirement System pension is calculated by taking the highest three-year salary average, multiplying it by 2.5 percent and multiplying that by years of service.

For example, if a retired police officer’s highest salary average was $100,000, and he or she worked 30 years, then the annual pension would be $75,000.

Here is what the other pensioners earn in their current appointed positions:

n  Sweeney earns $112,121 as assistant safety commissioner.

n  Wrenn makes $116,689 as commissioner of the Corrections Department.

n  Cheney earns $105,684 as director of emergency services.

n  Plummer’s salary as head of the Fire Standards and Training and Emergency Medical Services Division couldn’t be immediately determined.

RSA 100-A:3 doesn’t exactly spell out that state and municipal appointees and elected officials can work full time and draw a pension.

Rather, the law says membership in the state Retirement System “shall be optional in the case of elected officials, officials appointed for fixed terms, unclassified state employees, or those employees of the general court who are eligible.”

Marty Karlon, spokesman for the Retirement System, said this section of the law means “appointed or elected officials can collect a pension and work for the state” full time.

By opting out of the system, they don’t have to follow the rules of hours worked and thus can collect their pensions while working full time in new jobs, he said.

The Legislature has tweaked this provision of the law, but only for unclassified state employees. The bill headed for Lynch’s desk reads that any person in a “newly created’’ unclassified position in state budget has to be a member of the Retirement System.

Milligan and others with his status could choose to keep contributing to the Retirement System and cash out at a later date, Karlon said. But Milligan decided to collect a pension while taking on his new job as liquor commissioner.

Cheney, Sweeney, Wrenn, Plummer and Milligan didn’t respond to messages seeking comment.

Advocates of pensioners who return to work in the public sector argue that the retirees provide skills and knowledge that newcomers lack.

For instance, when Lynch nominated Milligan to the post, he said the former chief “possesses strong management skills, a reputation for integrity and the ability to work effectively with law enforcement and government leaders.”

Albert McKeon can be reached at 594-5832 or amckeon@nashuatelegraph.com.