Why is Walker County two years behind on retirement payments?

Why is Walker County two years behind on retirement payments?

April 19th, 2019 by Tyler Jett in Local Regional News

Staff photo by Doug Strickland / Walker County Commissioner Shannon Whitfield places his hand over his heart as the flag is raised during the grand opening of Food City's new location on Mission Ridge Road on Tuesday, Nov. 6, 2018, in Rossville, Ga.

Photo by Contributed Photo /Times Free Press.

LAFAYETTE, Ga. — When Walker County employees received the quarterly earnings reports for their retirement savings plans this week, some noticed a three-year-sized hole in their investments.

The county had not contributed any money to their funds since 2016, according to the report. This led to some panic on the community Facebook page, Our Walker County.

"Keep up the good work though!" one man wrote.

"We all keep working as hard as we can, giving it our all and hoping it will all be worth it and turn out OK in the end," a sheriff's office employee wrote.

On Thursday, county spokesman Joe Legge told the Times Free Press that administrators will catch up on the employee contributions soon. He said the local government actually paid $435,000 for 2016 contributions on April 8, though the investment company had not processed the funds when it sent out its report to employees.

Finance Officer Greg McConnell said the county has another $659,000 set aside to make the 2017 and 2018 contributions, which they budgeted for. But they are waiting to make sure the fiduciary, The Standard, properly processed this month's payment.

Legge blamed the long delay on the payments on The Standard account managers, who he said were going to improperly distribute the money had the county not pushed back. They negotiated with four different company employees over two years before making the 2016 payment.

Because that money sat in the county's general fund during what would have been a bullish stock market, employees could have missed investment gains. Legge said The Standard is owning the problem and has promised to add its own funds to each employee's account, making up for the potential loss in investment.

"We expect The Standard to provide all interest due for the periods in question," Legge said in an email.

A spokesman for The Standard did not answer an email asking whether Legge's statement is true, along with a list of other questions about what led to the delayed payments.

More than a decade ago, the county offered a defined benefit pension retirement plan, in which 63 employees are still invested. That plan is administered by Lincoln Financial Group, and Legge said the county has continued to make annual payments on that plan.

In 2008, the county switched to a cheaper, 401(a) money purchase retirement plan. Three hundred employees are part of this plan, which is administered by The Standard. An employee must work for the county for five years to become 50 percent vested and 10 years to become fully vested. The county's plan does not require any employee contributions.

In early 2017, soon after Commissioner Shannon Whitfield took office, The Standard asked for an employee census. Legge said The Standard then planned to distribute the investment to accounts for some employees who were not eligible for the plan. Some are already invested in the older, defined benefit plan. Others, such as employees of the district attorney's office, are eligible for a retirement plan administered by the state government.

Before making the 2016 payment, Legge said, Human Resources Director Sharleen Robinson negotiated with an account manager from The Standard to try to get an accurate list of employees who should have 401(a) plans. During the process, Legge said, Robinson also found one employee who did not receive any retirement benefits even though she was eligible.

If money had been improperly distributed, Legge said, it could not later be moved into the right employees' accounts, allowing the money to be invested on their behalf. Because of how the plan is administered, that money would then slide into a "forfeiture account." The county could apply this toward the retirement plan later, but the employees would miss any growth during that investment period.

The county will administer the 2017 payments "sooner rather than later," Legge said. Robinson will review all the employee accounts after the 2016 payment to make sure they received what they were supposed to. Then she will make the 2017 payment, review it and make the 2018 payment, he said.

"I can't stress enough that her persistence in this matter has safeguarded thousands of dollars that will be added into eligible employee accounts that would have otherwise been forfeited," Legge wrote.

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