Marietta mayor supports pension reform: It’s not ‘let them eat cake’

The politicians in Marietta knew how it looked when they agreed Wednesday to ask the city’s pension board to review the pension plan for city employees.

A man who gave more than 20 years to the city died suddenly just months before retirement, and because of a provision written into Marietta’s pension plan the city gets to withhold his hard-earned pension from his widow.

To Mayor Steve “Thunder” Tumlin, it called to mind a certain tone-deaf monarch — Marie Antoinette.

“When something slaps us in the face, we ought to look at it,” Tumlin said during Wednesday’s called City Council meeting. “It’s not ‘let them eat cake.’”

Two weeks ago I wrote that Janet’s husband, Hal, a longtime Marietta employee, died of a heart attack just months before his planned retirement. Hal Cosper was Marietta’s top building inspector and had worked for the city for two decades. He was fully vested in the city’s pension plan, which was an important part of the Cosper’s retirement plans.

But shortly after Hal died last July, Janet discovered the city planned to keep her husband’s pension because he died while still employed. The city had been getting away with this for decades, but Tumlin believes it has not been without cost.

“I think we are losing good employees because of this,” he said. “We’re all in this thing together. If it costs a few more bucks …”

He left the sentence unfinished, but he and several council members suggested they might offset any costs by decreasing the life insurance benefit offered by the city that all employees – vested in the pension plan or not – receive.

That’s not sound reasoning. The truth isyou don’t have to decrease any other employee benefits because changing the plan would not cost the city anything.

Hal Cosper was vested in the pension plan and heading for retirement, so the pension plan anticipated paying his pension. The city is profiting on the unfortunate fact that he died before realizing his ultimate goal to retire.

Put another way, that’s money the city is keeping from a widow that the pension plan was prepared to pay if Hal had retired and died one day later.

Public reaction to Janet Cosper’s situation was swift and condemning, with metro Atlanta residents making some bold and sweeping judgments about Marietta’s leaders. Clearly, it caught their attention.

Marietta’s decision not to provide survivor benefits in its pension plan is not only an uncommon choice, it’s unprecedented, according to a national pension expert I interviewed in my initial story. And Don Horton, a private retirement planner who volunteered to help Janet Cosper, said he has not seen anything like it in his more than 30 years in practice.

Horton, who also serves on the Roswell City Council, attended the Marietta council meeting on Janet Cosper’s behalf. Horton held up his hand and tried to address the council as they floundered around the issue, but never got a chance to speak.

After the meeting, he was amazed at how little they seemed to know about the topic.

“I don’t know of any pension plan that doesn’t have a beneficiary designation,” he said.

Horton estimates it’s about $1 million in savings to the city plan, when interest and Janet’s anticipated lifespan are taken into account.

Tumlin, a lawyer, understood that Marietta’s plan was outside the financial norm.

The mayor said he would like to see city employees offered the same protections federal law requires his firm to offer to their employees and that employees in surrounding governments receive.

“We do not have any of those protections and I think it is a minimum,” he said.

It’s a start. The pension board doesn’t meet until May, but it can call a special meeting and get started sooner.

The council did not make any decision Wednesday, so the fate of Janet Cosper still hangs in the balance. Moreover, the families of the city’s employees, including police officers and fire fighters, are unprotected if something happens to them. I’ve spoken with Janet Cosper enough to know that this bothers her as much as her own financial insecurity.

A change in city policy poses little, if any, risk to Marietta. Employees don’t vest in the pension plan until they’ve been with the city for 10 years and having a city employee who is vested and dies before retirement is a rare occurrence.

But the potential effect on families is devastating.

It may have taken a while, but Tumlin showed Wednesday that he gets it.

“The bottom line is we have a survivor of an employee who did not receive benefits because of our plan,” he said.

That is the bottom line. Now we’ll see what the city is prepared to do about it.

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