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-DIPPINGRetirees who still work defend the practice, while some others disapprove Stories by

— Amid concern over the mounting debt of the Public Employees Retirement System, many Oregonians are irked by so-called double-dipping government employees.

There's all this talk about how they (public agencies) don't have enough money, said Brian Perry of Medford, who is a student at Southern Oregon University. At the same time, they have all these people who are making twice as much as they should.

Double-dippers ' those who are getting state retirement benefits while still working for a public body ' have become an increasing problem for state legislators as they debate the fate of PERS.

In Jackson County, there are 59 teachers, police officers, administrators and others who collect a PERS check and a salary.

Schools and government agencies say they save money because they don't have to pay a contribution to PERS for these retired employees.

The employees, who are allowed to work up to 1,039 hours in a calendar year, earn from as little as &

36;6.90 an hour to more than &

36;100,000 a year.

The average retiree in 2001 received &

36;2,446.92 a month in PERS benefits, according to PERS officials.

In a retirement system groaning under &

36;15 billion in anticipated debt, some employees are enjoying retirement benefits that equal up to 105 percent of their former salary but also continue to work at their jobs.

Meanwhile, the state has made drastic cuts to schools, human services and the Oregon State Police because of declining revenues.

Isn't this a little immoral to be taking this much when we're in this much trouble? questioned Paul Tipton, a carpenter who lives in Applegate.

Republican Rep. Dennis Richardson of Central Point, who is on the state House PERS committee, has begun drafting legislation that would make it more difficult for public employees to double dip.

In a school district like Medford's, Richardson said the &

36;160,000 it saves annually by hiring back 15 retired employees is &

36;160,000 that doesn't flow into PERS, creating more of a strain on the system.

They're drawing from the pool, but nothing is coming in, he said. Our system depends on the continuing contribution of all employees now.

While legislators and residents are urging a solution to the problem, many government agencies, fraught with budget cuts because of the troubled state economy, think people are barking up the wrong tree by going after the double dippers.

The state ran into problems with PERS because it is heavily invested in the stock market, which has been doing badly, creating poor rates of return.

At the same time, PERS guarantees many of its members a minimum 8 percent rate of return on contributions.

Brian Almquist, interim Ashland city administrator, collects &

36;3,500 a month from PERS plus a salary of &

36;49 per hour from the city while he fills in for four months until his replacement takes over.

I have nothing to apologize for, said Almquist.

He has paid into PERS for 28 years and said he can't be blamed for legislative and other decisions that have created a system that is in trouble.

To attack people who are double dipping is to lose sight of the overall problems with PERS, he said.

This is really kind of nit-picking, I think, he said. This has nothing to do with the PERS problem. It is not going to solve the &

36;15 billion problem.

He said Oregon law allows teachers and others to come out of retirement because historically there had been a lack of teachers to fill positions. It doesn't make sense not to tap that talent, he said.

Almquist thinks it would be a complicated process to draft legislation that would include some employees while excluding others.

Where do you draw the line philosophically? he said. It is fraught with so many problems.

Matt Evans, executive director of Oregon Tax Research, said double dipping has become symptomatic of what is wrong with PERS.

It certainly has affected the public perception of what's going on, he said. We have certainly expressed concern about it, and particularly about what's going on in Jackson County with the Medford superintendent.The Medford School Board in July allowed Superintendent Steve Wisely to retire, then rehired him at his former salary of &

36;114,000 without making a public announcement about his retirement.

The decision caused a public outcry when it came to light in October. But Evans said it would be difficult for any employee to pass up on this kind of a sweetheart deal.

Wisely agreed that the entire PERS issue needs to be scrutinized, even looking at people who have retired and returned to work.

I, too, believe, as do a lot of people, that every aspect of PERS needs to be reviewed, said Wisely.

His district saved &

36;163,342 in PERS benefits by not hiring new people, he said. This allowed the district to save four to five teaching positions, he said.

Over a 17-year period, 177 employees have retired from the district while collecting their retirement benefits, he said.

As to legislators and others who have criticized Wisely for retiring and then continuing to work for another year at the same salary, he responded: They shouldn't have a law that allows people to use it, then criticize them for using it.

Democratic Rep. Alan Bates of Ashland said the Medford district's decision to hire Wisely back sets an unfortunate example in a time when the state faces so many other problems.

It just doesn't pass the smell test too well, he said.

Bates, a former member of the Eagle Point School Board, said the situation could have been handled better by the Medford district.

If Wisely had come back and said he would waive the &

36;114,000 and work for a year for a buck, I don't think there would have been any problem, said Bates.

Hedrick Middle School Principal Marjorie Lininger, who retired last September from her &

36;85,192 job but will continue to work until the end of the school year, said, The only thing I could say is that I made a personal decision about retiring in September and I have been totally open about it with everybody since then.

When she made the decision to retire, there wasn't the kind of attention being directed toward PERS and the people who receive benefits from it.

I didn't realize, I didn't consider it to be a controversial decision at the time, she said.

Retired Medford Police Sgt. Gary Bates, 52, said being rehired at less money on a part-time basis to man the speed patrol vans has benefited both him and the city of Medford.

While he can understand people's concern about the double-dipping question, he said the city doesn't have to pay him &

36;700 a month in insurance as well as PERS costs and vacation and holiday time.

He also gets &

36;20 an hour now, versus &

36;33.63 when he worked full time.

It works out pretty well for everybody, he said.

Central Point schools Superintendent Candace Manary said there has been an increase in the number of employees opting for retirement.

Last December, the district had eight employees who were collecting PERS benefits who continued working.

That number jumped to 14 by this year, prompted by a concern among employees over the future of their benefits.

However, Manary said many of the employees, including eight teachers, two principals, one special education director, two building directors and an office staff member, are now working part time.

All of them started the school year as permanent employees.

Probably all of those people wouldn't have done this except for the uncertainty of the PERS situation, she said. They are not doing it to get two salaries.

Republican Rep. Tim Knopp of Bend, who heads the House PERS committee, said the double-dipping problem has increased throughout the state.

They are retiring to protect their PERS retirement and then they come back to work, he said.

Knopp wants to make it so that high-profile public employees can't take advantage of the system. Part of his reforms may include withdrawing legislators from the system.

My goal is to take the legislators out of PERS, he said.

Republican Rep. Rob Patridge of Medford said, While districts have the right to employ people that way, it shocks the conscience of most people to see someone getting twice their salary.

Under certain circumstances, Patridge said school districts and other government agencies have little choice but to rehire someone who has already retired.

But, in general, he said, If people are going to retire, they should retire.

Retired Medford Police Sgt. Gary Bates operates the department?s speed patrol van to supplement his retirement. Though some Oregonians frown on ?double-dipping,? Bates said being rehired at less money on a part-time basis benefits him and the city. Mail Tribune / Bob Pennell - Mail Tribune Bob Pennell