County commissioners: Benefit of the doubt 

In the private sector, pensions have largely gone the way of electric typewriters. But politicians, from county commissioners to congressmen, continue to cash in on taxpayer-funded retirement accounts ranging from $6,000 a year to well over $69,000. And of course, the longer they serve, the more they receive in benefits.

This point might be of interest in the debate over local term limits. Specifically, the controversy surrounds whether El Paso County voters should be allowed to revisit their decision last fall that gave county officials a third four-year term.

After passage of the three measures — for commissioners, district attorney and some other officials — by margins of nearly 2 to 1, some voters cried foul, saying the measures' wording fooled them into thinking they were actually voting to keep the two-term maximum. Now, a group of voters is trying to persuade commissioners to give them another shot at the questions in November.

But even aside from the additional $350,000 in salary for the extra four years, another ballot question would leave commissioners with a lot to lose.

Building a nest egg

Adding a third term means a $650-a-month bump in lifetime pension benefits for commissioners who took office before Jan. 1, 2010. It would raise their monthly El Paso County Retirement Plan benefit from $1,292 to $1,938, assuming they wait until they're 62 to collect.

The story is similar for those first elected after that cutoff date.

"In the case of a county commissioner taking office after January 1, 2010 and being paid $87,300 a year, who serves two terms, the benefit would be $1,164 a month," Howard Miller, the retirement plan's executive director, writes in an e-mail. "In the case of a county commissioner taking office after January 1, 2010 and being paid $87,300 a year, who serves three terms, the benefit would be $1,746 a month."

Officials must be 55 to collect a benefit. If they want to tap their account before age 62, their benefit declines by 3 percent per year under age 62.

Commissioners aren't the only ones covered. Bob Balink, former two-term clerk and recorder who's in his first term as treasurer, will receive $1,938 a month for life if he leaves office after one treasurer term.

Though Balink, who's in his 60s, could serve three treasurer terms, he's hinted privately that he might retire after one.

Wayne Williams, 48, a two-term commissioner in his first clerk and recorder term, could draw $3,230 a month for life if he served three clerk terms and waited until he's 62 to draw benefits.

So how much of a motivator is the bump in retirement pay?

"It's really not," says Commissioner Dennis Hisey, 56, who can seek a third term in 2012 under the measures approved last November. "That wouldn't factor into the decision at all. I tend to do a job until it's not fun anymore, so I might be a little different in that aspect. That would not enter into the equation."

Commissioner Sallie Clark, 51, who also could seek a third term next year, says she's not even aware of how much her pension would be after two terms or three.

"I frankly don't pay attention to it," she says. "I couldn't even tell you what the difference would be. My desire would be to continue to serve the people and see projects through that I'm working on. I have an obligation to the people who elected me to see things through. It isn't about retirement."

Clark, for one, isn't leaning toward allowing a term-limit re-vote in November, saying, "I do believe voters have spoken on the issue. We need to respect that vote."

Hisey has said he'll decide after public meetings on the issue this summer. Commissioner Peggy Littleton says she's fine with repeating the ballot measures, and Commission Chair Amy Lathen has said if the measures were meant to pass, they'll pass again. Commissioner Darryl Glenn has said previously he would be up for another vote, but didn't respond the last time we asked him.

More than a gold watch

On the state level, legislators who serve five-plus years are eligible for benefits from the statewide Public Employees' Retirement Association. If they serve the full eight years allowed under term limits, they could receive $400 to $500 a month for life, depending on their age at retirement. That nest egg would grow with periodic cost-of-living adjustments.

While Colorado Springs City Council members can enroll in PERA, it wouldn't make a whole lot of sense, considering their annual pay is $6,250, and retirement benefits are based on salaries. According to PERA charts, a Councilor serving eight years could receive a benefit of $69 a month at age 60, or $104 a month at 65.

City spokeswoman Sue Skiffington-Blumberg notes that the new strong mayor will be eligible for PERA only after being elected to a second four-year term, because five years of service is the minimum. After two terms, the mayor could collect about $1,600 a month, which is based on the mayor's annual pay of $96,000.

Members of Congress, who get $174,000 a year in salary, are eligible for a pension at age 50 if they've completed 20 years of service, or at any age after completing 25 years of service, according to the Congressional Research Service. By law, the starting amount of a member's payout may not exceed 80 percent of his or her final salary. As of Oct. 1, 2009, the average retirement payment for Congress members was $69,012.


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