UPDATE: Heiskell employees got $770,000 in retirement bonuses

UPDATE: Heiskell employees got $770,000 in retirement bonuses

February 27th, 2017 by Tyler Jett in Local Regional News

Bebe Heiskell

Bebe Heiskell

Photo by Contributed Photo /Times Free Press.

UPDATE: On Oct. 17, Walker County Spokesman Joe Legge sent the Times Free Press a copy of a check former Commissioner Bebe Heiskell issued to David Ashburn for his retirement benefit.

While Heiskell initially issued Ashburn, the county coordinator, a $359,000 check for taking out his retirement benefit early, on Nov. 30 she increased the total amount given to him to $399,000. She said in an internal memo that the extra $40,000 Ashburn received is for four years he served as the Walker County Emergency Management Director.

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UPDATE: Spokesman Joe Legge said he found paperwork for former County Attorney Don Oliver's early retirement package this morning, pushing the total amount of bonuses to the 15 employees up to about $770,000.

Oliver received $380,000 to withdraw his funds from the county's pension plan last summer. This included a $160,000 bonus.

Oliver's early retirement incentive was the largest of all 15 employees.

A previous version of this story, which did not contain Oliver's early retirement package, put the total bonus for all employees at $609,000.

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ORIGINAL STORY: In her last months in office, Walker County Commissioner Bebe Heiskell gave 15 employees $600,000 in retirement bonuses.

Heiskell first offered the early retirement packages in June, five months before she lost her re-election bid. As part of the offer, obtained last week through an open records request, Heiskell told her workers they would get extra money if they closed out their pension plans.

The size of the bonus depended on how long the employee worked for the county and his or her average salary. But in total, county records show, the local government paid 15 employees $3 million — about $600,000 more than they would have received had they retired without the bonus.

Heiskell made the offer to save the county money in the long term, said David Ashburn, the county coordinator, who took the deal. The bonuses equal benefits they would have received by working an extra four years. In other words, if an employee retired in 2016, they received a retirement benefit as if they had worked until 2020.

So if employees were otherwise planning to work beyond 2020, the deal saves the county money. But it hurts the local government's bottom line if those employees would have left before then anyway.

"It's a roll of the dice," said Ashburn, whose $55,000 bonus pushed his retirement benefit up $359,000.

In a confusing twist, some employees who took the deal didn't actually retire. They continued to work for the county and receive their salaries. They simply took their retirement benefits early.

Ashburn said the offer didn't only arise because it was Heiskell's last year in office. For one thing, no one knew how the election would go. Also, he said, the county offered two other waves of early retirement packages in the past eight years.

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But Heiskell's successor, Commissioner Shannon Whitfield, said the offer was a bad investment. In January, Whitfield took out a $4 million loan to make payroll through June. He said he's going to need another loan this summer.

"It's not that uncommon in private business," Whitfield said of the early retirement packages. "But what it has done in [our] local government is [caused] a hardship and created more debt. It's created more liabilities."

Heiskell did not return calls seeking comment for this story. But multiple employees who took the offer last summer said they did so because of the election season. They didn't think they would last long if Heiskell was defeated.

Whitfield won in November with 73 percent of the vote. Soon after, some of the employees who took the early retirement deal were out of jobs. For example, Whitfield fired Ashburn on Jan. 6.

"There was no guarantee of a future for me at the county under the new administration," he said Friday, when asked why he took the deal. "And lo and behold, I'm not there. It seems like a good move. That's what it came down to for me and my family."

During his campaign, Whitfield told voters he would fire County Attorney Don Oliver. Oliver also accepted the early retirement offer, taking home $380,000.

Had he not taken the offer, county records show, his pension would have been $220,000. Oliver did not return a call seeking comment.

Fire Chief Randy Camp, whose $55,000 bonus pushed his benefit to $394,000, said the incentive was too good to pass up. He remained in charge of the department until December, when he accepted a job as Catoosa County's fire chief. He said he left because he's from Catoosa County and had started his career there.

"I took a pay cut," he said of his new job. "But you kind of follow your dreams sometimes. That's what I did. Being the chief of Catoosa was kind of my dream job."

Whitfield is now trying to see how the wave of retirements will impact the county's pension plan going forward. The county has two retirement funds.

The first is a defined-benefit plan that started in 1973 and was available to all employees who joined Walker County before 2006. Retirement benefits are based on a complicated formula that considers an employee's average salary and how many years they worked.

In general, that plan is more expensive for the county.

The second plan is similar to a 401(k), with the county contributing a share based on an employee's salary. The local government began offering that plan to new employees in 2007.

Long before last year's buyout, which removed several employees' investments in the fund, the county already needed to put more money into its older, more expensive retirement plan. As of January 2015, according to the most recent audit, the county needed to inject an extra $3.3 million into the plan to properly pay its employees down the road.

Whitfield doesn't know how Heiskell's buy-out offer affects the pension fund. He is awaiting a report from the county's retirement plan managers.

But, he said last week, "this is probably going to have a negative impact."

Contact staff writer Tyler Jett at 423-757-6476 or tjett@timesfreepress.com. Follow him on Twitter @LetsJett.


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