LACONIA — When former Laconia Police Chief Mike Moyer was elected Belknap County sheriff in 2016, he followed a well-established path in which public employees retire, draw a pension and then go back to work for another public agency.
Drawing a simultaneous government salary and a government pension is sometimes called “double dipping,” a practice that is popular for those who can do it but draws public concern at a time when most private employers no longer offer pensions at all.
Moyer is one of at least seven sheriffs around the state who earn a full-time county salary while collecting a New Hampshire State Retirement System pension for work at a police agency, according to information provided by the state under a public records request.
About 2,400 people who retired from the state system were back working in a job covered under the system in the three-month period ending June 30. This includes 52 people working for the City of Laconia, the Laconia School District, Meredith, Gilford, the Gilford School District and the Inter-Lakes School District.
William J. McQuillen, president of the Professional Fire Fighters of New Hampshire, said many states have more restrictive rules than New Hampshire when it comes to public retirees returning to public jobs.
“There are groups taking advantage of it,” he said. “Police chiefs, cities and towns think they get a better deal by allowing double dipping, but they don’t see the additional costs to the pension systems. It also makes it difficult for younger persons coming up.”
He said that, under the present system, many retirees return for part-time employment. Such employees don’t pay in to the retirement system as a full-time worker would. That increases costs for employers and full-time employees in the system, he said, and part-time workers also can stand in the way of promotion for younger workers.
McQuillen provided information about how other states handle the issue. For example, Colorado requires re-employed retirees to pay active member contributions to the retirement system. In Hawaii, retirees who return to work have a 1-year waiting period and also must resume contributions.
“We’re opposed to the idea of double dipping and we want the practice to stop,” McQuillen said. “We’d hope cities, towns and counties would figure this out on their own.
“We certainly want to make it more difficult for people to go back to work post-retirement in the same job they retired from.”
Chief then sheriff
After 27 years of service, Moyer retired from the Laconia Police Department in 2011 with an annual pension of $80,953. He also earns about $76,000 a year as sheriff.
County Administrator Debra Shackett said the county is getting a good deal.
“It always causes my skin to crawl when this comes up,” she said. “They worked hard for the pension and are deciding to keep working. It’s a great way to attract and have qualified people in that position.
“Luckily for county government, we are allowed to have retirees as county sheriff. The salary of a sheriff is roughly half that of a chief of police.”
Most elected officials, including those serving as county sheriff, are exempt from the general rule requiring that retirees collecting a pension through the state can only work part-time for the state or in local government jobs. Limits on such work range from 26 hours weekly to 32 hours weekly, depending on when the employment started.
Also, per diem bailiffs and court security officers are exempt from the limits on hours worked, as are employees working for the Legislature and retirees appointed to unclassified state positions prior to July 1, 2011. Chief administrative officers of a municipality can also be exempt.
Other states have more restrictive rules. In Maine, people who retire from public sector jobs and are below normal retirement age (60 to 65) and collect a pension have a 90-day limit for working for their old employer, according to that state's retirement system.
Sheriff Moyer said most of the bailiffs in Belknap County are retired, many from police jobs.
“They are per diem employees,” he said. “They earn ‘X’ amount of money a day. Nobody is getting rich.”
He also employs part-time deputies who retired from law enforcement work.
“For me, there may be a police officer in the county who retires, and I can bring him or her in as a part-time deputy and basically they don’t have to be trained, they’ve been in the system for 20 years,” he said. “Their experience is invaluable.”
He also hires people who have been in the military for 20 years and are getting a federal pension.
“Those are great people to hire,” he said. “And they have earned every penny of their military pension.”
Moyer said the state retirees he hires are not given ranking positions and, therefore, are not standing in the way of younger employees trying to rise through the ranks.
“I wouldn’t hire a part-time sergeant or lieutenant, but you see that with police,” he said. “That’s something I personally disagree with. There are part-time police employees with rank all over the state. That’s not healthy for an organization. They could be the best people, but it sends the wrong message to the working class.”
Laconia Mayor Ed Engler said he has known school principals who live close to another state. They retired in New Hampshire, collect a pension and then go to work in the neighboring state as a full-time principal.
He said “retirement,” is a euphemism for many public retirees. Instead of fishing, golfing or moving to Florida, they often take their pension and continue to work in the public or private sector.
When Chris Adams retired as Laconia police chief in 2017, he began receiving an annual pension of $70,958. He now works as a real estate agent.
The retirement system list shows 426 public employees retired from positions with Laconia. The highest paid is former Capt. Robert Landry of the Laconia Fire Department. His yearly pension is $87,930.
The largest pension on the list is held by retired Manchester Fire Chief James Burkush. His annual payment is $155,020. After retirement, he became chief in Hooksett.
Engler said many people have concerns about double dipping.
“It doesn’t seem right to most people that someone could retire with a state pension and then go right back to work for the state again in another department,” he said. “That’s difficult for a lot of people to swallow, but I don’t have a strong opinion on that. I’m more concerned that municipalities who have to pay the bills for the retirement system don’t set the rules under which the system operates.”
The state once paid for 35 percent of the retirement costs of local governments, but gradually reduced that contribution to zero. Meanwhile, costs have been driven up by setbacks in financial markets and by the fact that retirees are living longer and drawing pensions for more years.
The Laconia city budget line for police retirement costs in 2013-14 fiscal year was $670,524. By the 2018-19 budget, the expense had grown to $940,517. Similar increases were seen for firefighters and public school teachers.
Municipal employees who bargain collectively often seek contract provisions that can increase retirement costs.
For example, in Laconia, some employees can bank unused time off. After a long career, they receive pay for this time in their final year. That year’s compensation then is used in the formula by which their pension is calculated.
Legislation introduced in the state Legislature could have a major impact on the retirement system.
House Bill 616 would provide a 1.5 percent cost-of-living increase to retiree pensions.
The New Hampshire Municipal Association opposes the increase.
“Funding the COLA would increase the existing $5 billion in New Hampshire Retirement System unfunded liability by $78 million — all of which would be paid by increased employer contribution rates over the next 20 years.”
Rep. Sallie Fellows, D-Holderness, said such an increase is long overdue.
“I support it because the people in the retirement system haven’t had a cost of living adjustment in almost 10 years,” she said. “When I was campaigning in the general election I would run into people who are part of the retirement system, including retired teachers, who told me it was a struggle for them.
“I can tell you total amount K-12 education in the state is funded at over $3 billion. This is a very small percentage of overall spending.”
Meanwhile, House Bill 497 would restore a 15 percent state contribution toward retirement system costs for teachers, police and firefighters. This would relieve local governments of about $42 million in retirement costs annually.