AUBURN — A measure to improve legislators’ pensions erupted into loud debate, questions about legislators’ employment status and a last minute proposal that all legislators give up their health and retirement benefits at Tuesday’s full meeting of the county Legislature.
The board ultimately tabled the resolution to shorten their work week, which would have allowed them to collect a greater annual pension credit. Legislators said they needed more time to review two new proposals – one that would tailor work weeks to each Legislator and another that would eliminate pension and health care for board members – before deciding how to move forward with what has become a topic of heated public debate.
The original proposal would have shortened legislators’ work week from 35 hours to 30 hours. Through a formula the state uses to determine pension pay out, a shorter work week would allow many legislators to collect a full year credit. Most currently earn credit for two-thirds of a year.
Proponents say the measure is necessary to compensate for the low salaries legislators earn and the increasing minimum wage rate, which is also factored into state pension pay out. The measure is a less costly alternative to getting their pensions on par with a year’s-worth of work – salary increases. The county will contribute the same amount to legislators’ pension, regardless of the credit they earn each year.
A move in the opposite direction, Legislator Christopher Palermo proposed cutting legislators’ work week to three hours, which would make them part-time employees and ineligible for pension and the healthcare benefits they receive.
“What I want is for us to decide is whether we’re full time or part time,” Palermo said. It is “completely ludicrous,” Palermo said, for legislators to be considered full-time employees and for the county to pay into pension for them if they are not permitted to collect a full year credit.
Palermo withdrew his proposal when the measure was tabled. He declined to say after Tuesday’s meeting whether he would reintroduce his proposal in committee.
The resolution to shorten the work week was first introduced by Legislator George Fearon in the Government Operations Committee, which he chairs, and approved by the Ways and Means Committee last Monday. Since then, it has been met with resistance from some community members, who question whether legislators put in as many hours as they say and who think their current compensation is adequate.
Fearon said benefits, such as the pension plan, are necessary to ensure quality candidates continue to run for office. He pointed out that in an increasing number of district races, candidates run unopposed.
“We don’t have people waiting in line for these spots,” he said. Fearon introduced Tuesday a plan that would set a 30-hour work week for only some legislators; the measure was tabled.
But other legislators, among them Patrick Mahunik, disagree with the idea of using benefits as a lure to the job. Improving benefits for legislators while working to downsize government sends the wrong message, he said.
“I think this is a time for us to lead by example,” Mahunik said.
Regardless of the message conveyed by shortening their work week, the board appears to be acting within the guidelines set by the state comptroller’s office, said Mark Johnson, a representative for the office.
Legislators do not need to keep a regular work week for pay, only for pension. The state requires elected officials to submit a three-month calendar of their average work load; this average is used to help determine their pension.
The decision of whether it is the right thing to do, Johnson said, is “up to the municipality to make.”
Staff writer Sarah Gantz can be reached at 282-2237 or firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow her on Twitter at CitizenGantz.