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Loophole In State Retirement Law

Elected officials and government workers across the state are “retiring” for a month, then going back to their same job with full pay. Is it right? Sonny O’Bryan wears a lot of hats in Calhoun County government. He’s county administrator, emergency management director, and grants coordinator. And even though he entered Florida’s Deferred Retirement Program (known as DROP) with a leave date in April, he doesn’t plan on being gone for long. Sonny O’Bryan wears a lot of hats in Calhoun County government. He’s county administrator, emergency management director, and grants coordinator. And even though he entered Florida’s Deferred Retirement Program (known as DROP) with a leave date in April, he doesn’t plan on being gone for long. O’Bryan is taking advantage of a loophole in the law that many government employees and elected officials have taken before him: he’s retiring for 30 days, then coming back to work in his old job at full pay. This practice, that has become all too common, has drawn criticism around the state. Everyone from judges to circuit clerks, as well as government office managers, have been accused of “double dipping”. Technically, O’Bryan won’t be known as a double dipper until April 2011. Clerk of Court Ruth Attaway explains that he can draw his retirement for one month, then go back to work at his full salary, but will not receive retirement pay again for 11 months. At that point, if he continues working for the county in his old job, he’ll take home over $80,583 and some change for the year, plus his full retirement pay. Back in March, the county seemed to be lining up for O’Bryan’s departure. Joe Wood, Jr., who had worked for the Sheriff’s Office, was transferred to O’Bryan’s department to help with a spring storm project. In September, he was hired by the County Commission as assistant county administrator, giving him six months to prepare to take O’Bryan’s position as county administrator. However, during a portion of the agenda simply called “Commissioner Time” at last Tuesday’s county commission meeting, District 3 Commissioner Don Miller made a motion to rehire O’Bryan 30 days after his retirement in his old job with no changes. The motion was seconded by Truman Grant (district 4). Harold Pickron (district 5) voted against the measure, as did Danny Wise (district 1). Dan Wyrick (district 2) cast the deciding vote and O’Bryan was rehired. “The only problem I had was it was brought up in commissioner time so we weren’t aware it was about to happen,” says Pickron. “That didn’t give any time for me to find out anything about it.” Pickron says he understood Wood was being prepared to become County Administrator and Angie Smith, O’Bryan’s longtime assistant, should be named Emergency Management Director when he retired. “Both these people are supposedly ready to take over these positions,” says Pickron. Attaway says O’Bryan’s salary comes from different sources so it made sense to Pickron that the emergency management pay would go to Smith and Wood would receive county administrator pay. Miller explains that he believes O’Bryan needs more time to finish current grant projects and Wood needs more time to learn from him. “We’ve got many grant projects in motion at this time. Keeping the grants in mind, they’re all time sensitive, it’s logical to keep as much knowledge and experience on staff to keep this moving as we’re moving,” Miller remarks. “My job as commissioner is to look after the business of the county. As far as length of time for Mr. O’Bryan staying, there is no definite time frame being set up. It’s an open end thing and we’ll work as we go.” With O’Bryan reportedly staying on simply to handle the grants, The County Record asks whether the commission has considered cutting O’Bryan’s pay to solely county administrator (around $45,000) and going ahead with Smith’s promotion to Emergency Management Director. Miller replies, “Well, the motion was to continue as we were. If we’re going to go back and tweak that, nobody’s mentioned it.” As for O’Bryan, he says he’s not sure how long he’s going to stay, but wants to see the projects he’s started through to completion. “We’ve got about $10 million worth of projects in the hopper – roads, mitigation projects,” he remarks. “It ain’t about me. It’s about what benefits this county. The amount of money I’m going to get out of this – it will probably take four or five years out of my life. It’s not about the money. It’s about where we want to be 10 years from now.” O’Bryan says Wood is still preparing for the post, noting that being the county administrator for Calhoun County is different than in other communities. “He’s learning, he’s smart, he’s energetic and has a good work ethic. But he’s a work in progress. Joe has been assistant county administrator about six months now…I can’t possibly teach him in six months and he can’t possibly learn in six months what took me 19 years to learn. He’s in a learning stage and he’s a student of the game.” Clerk Attaway is one official who wants O’Bryan to stay. “There are people working for this county who are overpaid, but he is not one of them,” she says, adding that she attributes around $20 million in funding for Calhoun County over the past decade to O’Bryan’s efforts. As for whether someone else could accomplish the same, she replies, “I think they will with time.” Next week, in the second part of this series, we’ll look at what other counties are doing to put an end to this practice and discuss changes in the loophole.

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