Marietta mayor, council vote to change pension procedures for widows

For months, many of you have read about the plight of Janet Cosper, the unwitting victim of a strange policy by the city of Marietta to withhold pensions from widows of employees who died prior to retirement.

Janet's husband, Hal Cosper, was the city's top building inspector when he died of a heart attack last year. Although he was fully vested in the city's pension plan, Janet found she was ineligible to receive any survivor benefits because of the city's policy — a policy that would be illegal if the city was a private company.

After a short debate, the Marietta City Council and Mayor Steve "Thunder" Tumlin approved a recommendation that should allow Janet the survivor benefit she and Hal had planned for. The recommendation, which will be sent to the city pension board for final approval, creates an appeal process for survivors to receive pension payments.

Credit: Chris Joyner

Credit: Chris Joyner

The plan is the result of work by Tumlin and Councilman Johnny Walker, both of whom advocated for the change. Outside of a few comments at a council meeting in March, Tumlin has not said much about the city's strange pension policy. In an email he said he had been in "silent mode," in part out of respect for the privacy of deceased employees and their families.

On Wednesday, Tumlin said he had been thinking a lot about the lack of a survivor benefit and its cost to the city.

"I go to a lot of retirement parties and a lot of (city employees) are retiring in their 50s," he said.

With no survivor benefit, it makes sense for employees to leave the city as soon as they are fully vested in pension plan, perhaps taking their experience to another job with more generous benefits.

"We've invested a lot in our people," Tumlin said. The implication is that losing them early is a hidden cost to Marietta.

The planned appeals process retroactively includes Cosper and perhaps some other employees as well. Some 13 vested employees have died prior to retirement under the 29-year-old policy, but the appeal is limited to those who have died in the past five years.

There are other conditions as well. The original plan included a provision stating that the couple should be married at least a decade prior to the employee's death. The final version passed by the council trimmed that to one year.

The pension board still has to approve the council's recommendation. But Tumlin said the board asked for council guidance, so he expects board members will be receptive to the plan.

"It protects (Cosper) and it protects the city," he said.