News Column

Lake County government employees prefer payroll to pension

August 3, 2014

By Bill Dolan, The Times, Munster, Ind.

Aug. 03--CROWN POINT -- Government workers get little in the way of respect or pay raises, and the state is cutting pension annuity payments for those who haven't retired by Oct. 1

But no one is expecting a rush for the exits from Lake County, township and municipal employees.

"I've talked with our human resources director, and he hasn't indicated there is going to be a mass exodus," Lake County Commissioner Roosevelt Allen, D-Gary, said recently.

Allen, who is in his 60s, certainly isn't departing. He is campaigning for re-election this year. He is one of 156 county employees who have reached full retirement age -- about 1 in 11 of all county government's full-time staff.

"I've already retired. Once you put in a certain number of years, you can retire and continue as an elected official," he said.

County officials said no one is losing money they set aside in the annuity system, since they can withdraw their deposits into individual retirement plans offered by private investment firms.

"I'm not aware of any of our employees taking advantage of it, but it's a touchy subject," Griffith Clerk-Treasurer George Jerome said. "You don't want to mention it and make people think you are trying to push them out.

"Going now is a smart move financially. The current rates are very generous. I'd love to jump on that, but I don't have the whiskers. You have to have at least 10 years service and at the end of my current term, I'll only have eight years," Jerome said.

Senior Lake Superior Court Judge John Pera said he hasn't heard of court employees retiring in large numbers, either. He said judges are on a separate retirement plan unrelated to the changes. Lake County Sheriff John Buncich said police have a separate retirement system as well.

Thomas Dabertin, the county government human relations specialist, said there may not be much talk about the retirement deadline because many may be confused about their options.

He said employees rarely give much advance warning of their retirement plans, and the Public Employee Retirement Fund doesn't alert government employers when an employee files for retirement.

"We have a request in to PERF to have them come out to give a presentation for individuals eligible to retire," Dabertin said. "Counting the number of people who show up for that meeting will give us a pretty good indication of who are going to retire."

Commissioner Gerry Scheub, 78, notes the county tried without much success to encourage employees to retire six years ago when the county was in financial trouble and offering senior employees thousands of dollars in bonuses. Only about 70 reduced to part-time work or retired over a three-year period.

Scheub said many don't think they can afford to retire.

"It's tough out there," he said.

Crown Point has seen no exodus of retirement-age employees as a result of annuity payout changes made by the Indiana Public Retirement System, or INPRS, this year, Human Resources Director Karen Marben said.

City workers were informed of the change in a July 8 lunch-and-learn session with a representative of INPRS.

"People are not thinking it's a problem," Marben said. The city employs a total about 200 full-time workers.

There have been no unusual or unplanned retirements among St. John town employees due to changes in the public employees retirement system, Town Manager Steve Kil said. The town employs about 70.

Sharon Daniels, who heads the personnel department for Hammond, said nobody has approached her about early retirement. "As far as I know nobody has said anything about doing that," she said.

Daniels said they don't have many employees who would fall into the category of early retirement due to the changes made by the Indiana Public Retirement System.

Whiting has 57 full-time employees, and Deputy Clerk-Treasurer Jennifer Giancola said she has not been contacted by anyone interested in retiring early due to the INPRS changes made by the Legislature.

"We don't have anyone in that age area now," she said. "A lot of them left three or four years ago."

Allen denounced the reduced benefit to others.

"I don't understand why Indiana is doing this to their employees," he said. "They already are underpaid and overworked at every level. They are taking more and more benefits away from employees and expect them to maintain the same work output."

"But Indiana is a very conservative state, so I think they are using whatever nuances they can to force the (government) pensioners to invest with a private broker or go with a private annuity," he said.


Times reporters Susan Erler and Rob Earnshaw contributed to this report.


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