At Tuesday’s meeting, the Upson County Board of Commissioners heard from Airport Authority member George Hightower, Jr. about two airport employees’ retirement that was jeopardized when the county ended the joint project agreement with Thomaston in 2010. Due to the change, 15 employees were terminated by the city and immediately re-hired by the county, supposedly with no harm being done. However, Hightower told the board that two gentlemen, Benny Tucker and Pete Pettis, have lost the time they put in at the city to count towards their retirement because of the transfer. After much discussion, Chairman Rusty Blackston told Hightower that the board would take the matter under advisement and would hopefully have an answer on what to do within the next month.
The joint projects agreement between the county and the city ended in 2010; there were 15 employees from the Recreation Department and the Airport that were transferred from the city payroll to the county payroll. Prior to the change, the employees had essentially been county employees, with the county reimbursing the city for payroll expenses each month; however they were reporting to the city. The change was said to be minimal and of the 15 employees, 13 were vested (five years at that time) with the City of Thomaston and will be able to draw a pension from the city when they meet the underlying requirements. However, Tucker and Pettis had only worked for the city just over three years each. Hightower told the board it is not fair that they lost three years towards their retirement when the change was through no fault of their own.
“I think several of you were on the board at that time and requested you did not intend for anyone to be harmed. And I don’t think any of you intended for anyone to be harmed,” said Hightower. “But, these two gentlemen have actually been damaged somewhat in the way their pension is calculated.”
He went on to say that he has had several meetings since this happened to try to find a way to fix this and the Airport Authority would fix it if they were able to, but this is up to the commissioners. He noted the commissioners are the administrators of the county pension plan and they can make any exceptions to the program they deem fit as long as they are not illegal. Hightower stated the only solution he has come up with that would give Tucker and Pettis the time they are missing is to use their original hire date with the city as their original hire date with the county. He stated this would show they have worked seven plus years with the county currently.
Chairman Blackston stated he had been advised by the county attorney that doing that would be considered committing insurance fraud and that is not something he wants to get involved with.
Hightower stated the amount of money that was put into the city plan for the gentlemen was around $16,000 and if the county were to put that money back into the retirement plan, then the increase of the quarterly payment would be minimal. He noted the county makes a payment of over $100,000 each quarter into the pension plan and if the $16,000 was prorated over the remaining years the two men have to be able to draw a pension, and then the payment would only be about $1,000 more each time.
“It’s not their fault they got transferred, terminated and rehired,” said Hightower. “They were told they weren’t going to be impaired and they are; and we need to figure out a solution that gives them credit for their time. We are open to any solution…We are only here to do the right thing for two people who are good, dedicated, hardworking employees who don’t complain about anything. They really are not complaining about this, it is just not right to stiff them out of their service.”
Commissioner Frank Spraggins agreed that something needed to be done and the county needed to keep its word that they were not going to hurt any employees when the change was made.
Chairman Blackston stated he had personally looked into the matter and even went to City Manager Patrick Comiskey to ask if the city would refund the money the county had paid into their retirement plan to be placed in the county’s fund and he was told the answer was no.
He also stated he spoke with Ken Brown of Farm Bureau who handles the county’s retirement plan about the matter. He notes he was told if the county was to buy back into the insurance over a 20-year period of time it would cost $65,180 to cover these two gentlemen in addition to what the county already puts into the program. There was some disagreement between Hightower and Blackston, with Hightower noting the county is already paying for the two employees and over the 20 years would pay out at least 85 percent of that figure anyway. Airport Authority member Jim Wagner was also present at the meeting and told the board he had spoken with Mr. Brown as well and while he did not have an exact figure, he was quoted on the phone that the change would basically cost the county nothing.
“In essence these employees were county employees - paid by the county from day one while they were with the city,” said Wagner. “In effect they were not city employees, but were county employees working for the city. So they should be given credit for their time. I hate to see them hurt because somebody else made a mistake.”
The board took no action on the matter that evening with Chairman Blackston stating they would like to take the matter under advisement and get a better handle on the figures before they make a decision. He told Hightower that he hoped to have him an answer on what they county could do within 30 days. Hightower stated that was fine with him, that they had waited three years, so 30 days would not be too much longer.
“We just want to do what is right for these folks,” Hightower said.
Ashley Biles can be reached at 706-647-5414 or on Twitter at AshleyBiles1.