Editor’s Note: Readers around metro Atlanta were galvanized by the city of Marietta’s decision not to honor the pension of a longtime city employee who died just months before his planned retirement. The policy – unique among municipal pension plans – left the man’s widow without a financial safety net. Reaction from the original story caused the Marietta City Council to rethink its position, eventually coming up with a policy that would allow them to award the widow her pension. In the end, the Marietta Pension Board ignored the council and refused to change the policy. This story continues.
Original story: After a week of intense criticism, the Marietta City Council is reexamining a provision in the city’s pension plan that denies benefits for the widows and children of employees who die while still employed.
Councilman Johnny Walker said the details of the nearly 30-year-old provision “caught us all off guard,” even though Janet Cosper, widow of long-time city administrator Hal Cosper, brought it to the city’s attention months ago.
“We’re definitely going to be taking a look at this,” Walker said. “We ought to get to the bottom of this, but we’re not dirtbags.”
That last part is one of the reasons the city is anxious to rethink the provision. Last week’s AJC Watchdog column revealed that the city’s pension plan denies benefits to widows like Janet and pocketed money of vested employees like Hal.
Hal was the city’s top building official when he died of a heart attack last July. Alongside the tragedy of losing her husband, Janet Cosper found she was not entitled to Hal’s pension, despite his more than 20 years’ service to the city. The money the city would have paid out if Hal had died even one day after retirement went back into the pension plan instead.
After my column ran, critics of the city took to social media, blasting the plan as “embarrassing” and “shameful” and characterized Marietta’s leaders in a variety of unflattering ways, including as “dirtbags.”
Michael Graham, a talk show host on News Radio 106.7 FM, dedicated a segment to the AJC Watchdog column. Graham listed every council member and Mayor Steve “Thunder” Tumlin by name and encouraged Marietta residents to cross the street if they saw them coming.
Graham told me his show urges voters to demand better from its elected officials and the column was “a glaring example of how real people suffer.”
“This isn’t that hard to fix,” he said. “But there is no heat, no pressure.”
Graham said the phone lines at the station “blew up” after his rant about the Marietta pension plan. “People were very involved,” he said.
The city’s pension plan was also featured on the Henssler Financial “Money Talks” podcast, where retirement experts with the Kennesaw-based firm shook their collective heads at the strange provision and its effect on Janet Cosper.
“As you can imagine, we are still getting slammed on social media,” city spokeswoman Lindsey Wiles said in an email earlier this week.
Wiles was concerned that the general public was not clear that Janet Cosper did receive other benefits from the city.
In fact, Janet did receive a payout on a life insurance policy, which declined sharply when Hal turned 65 a few months before his death. She also got a refund of the small portion Hal contributed directly to the pension fund, minus the interest which the city kept.
While some may have been confused, most observers zeroed in on the fact the city kept Hal’s promised pension, an annuity Janet said she and Hal planned to rely on as a steady source of income for their senior years. Many also latched onto the concept that Marietta only gets away with this because it is exempt from a federal law that requires private pension plans to offer survivor benefits to the families of employees who die before retirement.
Faced with such a finger-wagging reaction, most of Marietta’s ruling class is laying low. Other than Walker, no member of the city council would comment on the city’s pension plan and Tumlin again did not return my request for comment.
Walker said the council is interested in discussing changes to the plan and a special meeting is planned for next Wednesday.
“We want to do what is right as a city,” he said. “We don’t want to lose good employees. I don’t want the good employees to be forced to retire because we don’t have spousal benefits.”
But they are losing them.
Robert Snelson, former water and sewer director for the city, said the lack of a survivor benefit was the “principal reason” he retired in January.
Snelson said he talked Hal Cosper about the problem with the city’s pension plan last spring.
“I’m pretty sure that was the first time he ever knew about it,” he said.
Cosper made plans to retire in December but was cut down by a heart attack before the date arrived. Snelson said Cosper’s death caused him to move up his planned retirement.
“My wife and I discussed it and decided it was time to not have this black cloud hanging over us,” he said.
Scott Dobbins, a retired Marietta firefighter, served on the city pension board and said there is no reason why the city cannot fix the issue. A simple box that employees can check indicating they would like a survivor’s benefit should they die before retirement would suffice, he said.
“The city could do a lot better for its employees than it does,” he said.
If the city council and the pension board reverse course, they could make it retroactive to include Hal and Janet Cosper without significant financial liability. After all, that’s money the plan had anticipated paying the Cospers anyway.
It’s not clear if that will happen, but Janet Cosper said she is glad current city employees — particularly first responders like fire and police — are aware of the financial dangers they face if they stay with the city.
“He was so proud he was able to get this job and to provide these benefits,” Janet said of Hal. “You’ve got to protect your family. You’ve worked all this time to provide for your family and in a split second it could be gone.”
I’ll be watchdogging this issue for Janet in the weeks ahead, so come back to AJC Watchdog on myAJC.com and in the paper for updates.
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As AJC Watchdog, I’ll be writing about public officials, good governance and the way your tax dollars are spent. Help me out. What needs exposing in your community? Contact me at email@example.com.