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The smell test

Oregon's true economic problems are more severe than PERS double-dippers

Yes, double-dipping has a bad smell to it.

But we think smell is about the only problem with the practice, which lets retired state employees return to the job and collect retirement pay and a salary.

Double-dipping has received attention around Oregon in this year when the state's Public Employees Retirement System faces financial problems that threaten to collapse it.

In Southern Oregon, taxpayers learned in last fall that Medford schools Superintendent Steve Wisely quietly became a double-dipper in the summer, retiring from his post without a public announcement, keeping his &

36;114,000-a-year job and collecting retirement pay from PERS.

It smells bad, state Rep. Alan Bates said in a Mail Tribune story on the subject, and he's right.

The system is particularly hard to accept right now. Governments everywhere are cut to the bone because of budget problems, and legislators are searching for ways to save PERS by eliminating its &

36;15 billion in debt. Compounding that is the perception that Oregon employees have an unreasonably sweet deal in PERS, which sometimes pays employees more in retirement than they earned while working.

But the fact is that most double-dippers, including 59 in Jackson County, aren't the villains that some might make them out to be.

In fact, if PERS didn't have so many other problems, these people would look like they were helping a budget-troubled state, not hurting it.

They potentially save employers money because no retirement fund contributions are made on their behalf. They sometimes are hired back at lesser pay or fewer hours. And, of course, no one can match their experience on the job.

Double-dipping is trouble when it becomes a long-term solution: Governments have to pay into the system for it to have money to go on. And it was never intended to be a way for an employee to work the system as a way to collect two checks.

That's part of what continues to trouble us about some of the retirements. For instance, the school district didn't immediately begin the search to find a superintendent when Wisely retired. He clearly intended to keep his job ' while collecting retirement pay ' and the School Board knew it.

What also remains troubling is the secrecy surrounding Wisely's retirement. Taxpayers should know when double-dipping is taking place, especially when it happens in a high-profile position.

The Legislature faces a massive task this year as it attempts to make changes in PERS that will make the system worthwhile for employees and affordable for the state.

As a small part of that work, the Legislature should place stricter caps on double-dipping than now exist so employees can use the system only infrequently, as intended, and not as a lucrative finale to their careers.

But Oregonians shouldn't make double-dipping out to be a larger part of PERS problems than it is. Used correctly, it can help rather than hurt.

And strapped governments need every bit of help they can get this year.