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Handful of retired local public workers get $100,000 a year

A number of Rogue Valley retired public employees are among the 837 retirees who are receiving more than $100,000 in annual pensions.

Public information released last week revealed individual pension information for more than 100,000 former Oregon public employees. Locally, the majority of the top pension earners making more than $100,000 annually as part of their Public Employees Retirement System plans are retired public school employees.

A sampling of former Rogue Valley public employees receiving more than $100,000 includes former Medford and Central Point schools superintendents, two former Rogue Community College presidents and a handful of Southern Oregon University emeritus faculty.

About 68 percent of PERS retirees receive $36,000 or less annually in benefits. About 28 percent of Oregon's public retirees receive between $36,000 and $72,000 a year.

The highest paid PERS beneficiary is former University of Oregon Athletic Director Mike Bellotti, who takes in just over $41,000 per month, or more than $492,000 per year. Leading the pack in Southern Oregon is former Rogue Community College President Harvey Bennett, who was an elementary school teacher, a junior high school principal and an administrator for Eastern Oregon University before joining RCC in 1984.

He retired in February 1999, and now receives an annual pension of $169,000, giving him the 48th-highest pension on the list of 105,000 beneficiaries.

Bennett said PERS benefits were only a small factor in his decision to retire in 1998.

"I didn't bother to find out what I would be getting until I filled out my paperwork to retire," said Bennett.

Bennett worked in top posts with risks and responsibilities for many years, and was the RCC president for 13 years, he said.

"My salary went up along with my duties," said Bennett, who retired at age 65 after 40 years in education.

"You have to look at the variety of pieces." Currently the beneficiary database is difficult to break down, as specific information — such as where a beneficiary worked or how pensions were calculated — won't be publicly released by PERS until March.

PERS benefits are roughly calculated based on salary amounts for an employee during their three highest-paid years.

In 2003, the state reformed PERS, effectively decreasing the total pension amount of some employees who retired.

Richard Levine, who followed Bennett as RCC president, said at the time of his retirement in 2003 that the PERS changes forced his hand. Levine, who also was an assistant commissioner in the state Office of Community Colleges and vice president of Academic Services at Chemeketa Community College in Salem, receives an annual pension of $105,467.

SOU Emeritus Professor Wes Chapman said he was planning to retire from his career as an art teacher sometime around 2002 or 2003, until he heard changes were being made to the PERS program.

"I chose '02 based on the idea that there were changes coming," said Chapman, who still lives in Ashland. "It wasn't the overwhelming reason, but it was a factor." Chapman, who receives $97,600 annually from PERS, said he believed the pension system is fair.

"It's been the system for a long time, and I think it's a good system," Chapman said.

Formerly, PERS retirees who worked for 30 years would retire with a 100 percent replacement ratio, making the same amount of money during retirement as they did during their job.

After PERS reform in 2003, the replacement ratio has decreased, and sat at roughly 77 percent in 2009.

The potential for more reform started as a priority for Gov. John Kitzhaber during the legislative session that ended in June, but ultimately nothing was changed.

State reform was overdue even before 2003, according to state Rep. Dennis Richardson, R-Central Point.

"PERS reform was needed a decade ago," said Richardson. "And we are now stuck with that plan." Richardson said that a lot of the largest PERS payouts are going to "Tier 1" employees who were hired before January 1, 1996.

"Those benefits are not allowed to be reduced," he said, due to court rulings.

Richardson said the state is like a snake and the Tier 1 benefits are a pig that the snake ate and must now slowly digest for years to come.

"It going to take 25 years to work through the system," Richardson said.

Former Central Point School District Superintendent Candy Manary retired in 2004, and said PERS benefits didn't play a role in her decision to retire.

"I had 33 years in the system, so that was my reason," said Manary, a Tier 1 employee who agreed that PERS was an effective pension program for retired public employees.

Manary and former Medford School District Superintendant Steve Wisely both break the $100,000 mark, with $113,600 and $124,800 annual pensions, respectively.

Along with Chapman, other SOU emeritus faculty lead the top pension earners in Jackson County, with dozens banking $50,000 per year or more.

Former Oregon poet laureate and SOU emeritus professor Lawson Inada receives a $115,000 pension per year.

The state's pension fund as a whole shells out $231 million per month — more than $2.77 billion per year.

For current public employees, an equivalent of 6 percent of their paycheck is put into PERS for their retirement. While some agencies require their employees to pick up their own PERS contributions, 70 percent of PERS pickups statewide are shouldered by employers, which are state agencies funded by taxpayers.

Teresa Ristow is a reporter for the Mail Tribune. Reach her at 541-776-4459 or tristow@mailtribune.com.