A nod and a wink and a nice fat pension

A couple of days ago in this space, I reflected on the Department of Public Safety* audit, which was widely reported as good news for DPS — no big fraudsters aside from Jim Deeghan, and relatively few staffers showing significant risk for fraud. I saw it quite differently: the audit revealed remarkably slipshod processes for reporting and monitoring overtime by DPS employees.

*Correction: I originally wrote “Department of Public Service,” which was a mistake. Stand down, Chris Recchia!

Well, big ups to frequent GMD commenter “inigma,” for digging up a two-year-old story in the Burlington Free Press that links very nicely to the new DPS audit. The two, taken together, tell a tale of widespread — but modestly-scaled — overtime abuse and pension padding among Vermont’s Finest.

And it’s a tale that I’m very surprised the Freeploid isn’t telling itself. For one thing, the ‘Loid usually loves these kind of stories — public employees feeding at the trough. For another, the 2011 story and this week’s rather forgiving account of the DPS audit were both written by the same guy — transparency maven Mike Donoghue. I’m sure he’s written a lot of stuff in the last two years, but did he miss the myriad reflections of his own 2011 reporting in this new audit?

In 2011, the Freeps (wasn’t the Freeploid at the time) listed the top 100 pensioners among state retirees, and found that the top of the list was packed with former judges — but a large majority of the top 100 were former State Police. 78 of the top 100, in fact. The article opened with the story of Bruce Lang, who became a state trooper in 1977 at age 18, and retired in 2007 with an $84,522 annual pension.

He retired, it should be noted, at age 48. He’s likely to keep pulling down that $85K for as many years as he was an active trooper. Or more.

If he does live to be 77, he will have taken home $2.5 million in pension. Not counting benefits, presumably including health insurance. (After age 65, his state pension will be reduced by the approximately $24,000 he will receive from Social Security. So some of that $2.5MM is federal money, not state. All public funds, in any event.)

I don’t know how much overtime Lang accrued as he approached retirement. But his case illustrates the problem when state troopers boost their pay in the years before retirement. Their pensions are based on their last few years’ pay, so we go on paying and paying and paying for every hour of overtime claimed by every senior state trooper. Even a “minor” abuse turns into big bucks after three decades or so.  

Not to say that troopers don’t deserve generous retirement benefits, after working long hours and routinely facing hazardous situations. But their pensions shouldn’t be perpetually inflated through improper overtime claims.

In 2010, the Legislature passed limits on how much overtime can count toward a pension. As a result, starting in July 2012, a maximum of 20% of a retiree’s pension can be based on overtime. (For teachers, the limit is 10%.)

However… excluded from the bill is overtime earned through federal grants for specific programs, such as drunk-driving checkpoints, seatbelt enforcement, and immigration patrols. Those grants were highlighted by the just-released DPS audit as “inherently vulnerable to abuse.”

The Freeps then described the practice of “spiking” — working extra overtime during the last few years before retirement in order to boost pensions. This relates to a couple of findings in the new audit. Auditors describe a “first-come, first-served” system for taking overtime hours — which allows troopers who value their downtime to limit extra duty, but also leaves the door open for senior troopers to load up the overtime and hence their pensions. The audit also indicated that senior DPS staffers, as a group, may be taking more overtime than warranted by the nature of the work.

Which could be interpreted as “pre-retirement guys soaking up the easy OT.” But perhaps I’m too cynical. In any case, the system is open to that kind of abuse.

There’s also that enticing item about how 88 DPS employees cut their reported overtime by at least 20% in the weeks after Governor Shumlin ordered the audit. This could be taken as a sign of widespread but low-level overtime padding. Which, when done by senior staffers, increases exponentially in pension costs.

When the Freeps published its 2011 article on the top 100 pensioners, VSP Director Tom L’Esperance sent an e-mail to troopers strongly defending their pension plan, celebrating “the countless sacrifices made during a trooper’s career,” and bemoaning the negative tone of the article.  

Again, I respect the hard work and sacrifices made by law enforcement personnel. They are entitled to pension benefits requisite to their service. They are not entitled to anything more than that. And L’Esperance’s ardent defense of his troops, well intentioned though it may have been, seem to indicate that a “lax organizational culture” is still alive and well.  

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