Does Buyout Program Favor Bloated Agencies?

CLEVELAND (AP) - Cuyahoga County commissioners say the most sweeping early retirement program in the state will save $50 million over the next five years, but critics say it rewarded employees of bloated agencies.

Commissioners offered the buyout last year to 29 county agencies that employ 7,400 of the county's 10,600 workers. The county will spend $118 million to buy out 1,140 employees who signed up.

Commissioners say the buyout will create a reinvigorated work force and promotion opportunities for promising and often lower-paid young workers, while allowing agencies to eliminate dead wood and reorganize.

Some agencies were denied the chance to participate in the buyout program, as bosses said they could not afford to lose dozens of retirees and not replace in compliance with the deal.

Excluding some employees was unfair, some administrators said, and showed that the buyout penalized the most efficient agencies and rewarded bloated agencies with employees to spare.

Coroner Elizabeth Balraj declined to participate, telling commissioners that she would "need to replace every employee in my agency who may take advantage of this program."

However, court officials tried hard to have their offices participate. Commissioners would not allow it, saying the courts could not promise sufficient payroll savings.

"My employees were really upset," Common Pleas Judge Richard McMonagle told The Plain Dealer in Monday's second part of a two-part series on the buyout plan. "They were mad seeing people they've hung around with for years walk out the door with five extra years of retirement."

Seventy-five court employees were eligible to take early retirements, but the court could not live with the 40 percent payroll cut rule.

"We can't do that with the amount of work we have to do around here," McMonagle said. "It's a personnel nightmare."

Under Ohio law, governments that want to trim payrolls are allowed to buy years of work credits for employees as an inducement to retire early.

By paying specified amounts into the Public Employees Retirement System of Ohio on workers' behalf, a buyout can add years to employees' service records and make them eligible for a bigger pension without actually putting in the extra time.

Other Ohio counties have buyout plans, but none have offered them to so many workers, often targeting a few departments, the newspaper said.

Also, Cuyahoga offered to buy five years of retirement credits, the maximum allowed under the law, making more workers eligible. No other buyout plan in the state has gone that far.

Former County Administrator Tom Hayes, who helped plan the buyout program, was 49 when he took early retirement last summer and accepted a new job as director of the Ohio Department of Job and Family Services. Hayes can now collect $410,800 in early pension payments over five years.

Hayes downplayed his role in the planning, saying he only passed along information to commissioners.

"I informed them when they considered this action that I was eligible, so I wanted to be somewhat careful," he told The Associated Press on Sunday.

Departments meet the cap by cutting positions or lowering pay, Hayes said Sunday. The replacement cost cap must stay in place for five years for the county to meet projected savings.

(Copyright 2002 by The Associated Press. All Rights Reserved.)