A year later, Marietta still keeping widow’s pension

This is a tough week for Janet Cosper, a church-going, part-time dental receptionist from Cobb County.

A year ago Friday, Janet lost her husband, Hal, to a sudden heart attack. Hal’s death, an evil trick of fate that robbed the couple of their golden years together, happened just months before his planned retirement from the city of Marietta after more than 20 years of service as the city’s senior building official.

The loss of her husband was a bitter blow, but Marietta officials found a way to make it worse with an intentionally flawed pension plan that allows the city to keep Hal Cosper’s pension because he died before retirement.

I first reported about this unusual pension rule in March, and Marietta officials rightly took it on the chin from outraged citizens who called the city’s position cruel, heartless and shortsighted.

In a meeting held shortly thereafter, Mayor Steve “Thunder” Tumlin and others in city government vowed to look into it. Well, four months of looking later and the city appears prepared to stand by their policy of withholding earned retirement money from widows.

“I don’t think we are going to be able to, at this point, make this retroactive for Ms. Cosper,” said Councilman Johnny Walker, the City Council’s representative to the Marietta Pension Board. “I was told that if we did that we’d have to do it for everybody.”

So much for doing the right thing — for Janet Cosper or Marietta employees.

While withholding benefits from the widow of a longtime city worker should be enough to shame Marietta into doing the right thing, continuing the policy is bad policy for retaining veteran workers. The most experienced and highly trained employees in every city department likely are also fully vested in the city’s pension plan and the policy of withholding benefits to surviving spouses might give them reason enough to retire now.

I spoke to one senior employee with more than 20 years of service who wondered if the city was trying to force him to out. He did not want to have his name in the paper because he fears retaliation.

“I don’t want to retire, but I don’t want my family to be screwed either,” he said. It smacks of age discrimination, he said.

“How can a city get away with it?” he asked.

Here’s how the city worked it so they can.

As part of their compensation, Marietta’s employees are eligible to receive a pension after serving between five and 10 years. They can receive a full pension when their age and length of service equal 80. Part of that plan allows for the election of a “survivor’s benefit,” but the fine print states that employees who die before they retire leave none of their pension benefit to their survivors.

That rule, added to the plan in 1987, would violate federal law if Marietta was a private company, but because it is a government plan those rules don’t apply. Still, experts I’ve spoken with say they have never seen such a provision in any pension, public or private.

There are reasons why others wouldn’t follow in Marietta’s footsteps, including that it’s just cruel.

Retirement plans are part of an employer’s compensation for services rendered. To withhold that earned benefit from a valued employee’s spouse seems more than a little heartless. That’s why, for private plans, there’s a federal law against it.

Mayor, city manager silent

So, the policy is mean, bad governing and (if it applied here) contrary to federal law. The council and mayor could solve the problem with a pen stroke, yet they have not.

Walker says he’s sympathetic, but he’s just one voice and so new to the pension board that he’s yet to go to a meeting. Neither Tumlin nor City Manager Bill Bruton have returned calls and emails seeking comment, but in their absence, let’s examine the city’s “we’d have to do it for everybody” logic.

In the 29 years since the city adopted the policy, 13 vested employees have died prior to retirement, including Hal Cosper. That’s it. A baker’s dozen.

If the city’s claim is that fixing this problem for Janet Cosper and the other survivors is too expensive, it’s a tough argument to swallow.

Over three decades, it’s fair to presume that some of these deceased employees’ beneficiaries are also now deceased. It’s also likely that most of the employees were not in senior management, like Hal, and would have lower salaries at the time of their death.

But forget all that. Paying a survivor’s benefit to Janet Cosper isn’t a “new” cost to the city’s pension fund. The plan already anticipated paying Hal Cosper his retirement, just like any vested employee. The city is merely pocketing that money that Cosper rightly had earned.

Marietta’s leaders are not thinking logically, said Don Horton, a retirement planner and Roswell City Council member who had been advising Janet Cosper.

“The reality is that a pension plan is designed to pay a benefit and they have to fund that benefit. There is a certain amount of money that has to be set aside regardless,” he said. “They are stealing it from Hal’s estate. That’s all it is.”

Potential cost minimal

They also are putting current employees at risk for virtually no reason.

In May, the city’s pension board received information on the cost of adding a survivor benefit for all of the city’s current employees. The sheet on the pension board website indicates that the cost increase would be well under 1 percent to the city.

Janet Cosper did receive a life insurance payout from the city that was also part of Hal’s compensation package. But it’s nowhere near the anticipated value of the pension.

While she thinks the city should come forward with a solution that honors Hal’s service, at the very least she hopes Marietta’s current employees are now aware of the policy and can make informed decisions.

“I don’t know what Hal knew. I can’t answer that,” she said about the lack of a survivor benefit in the city’s plan. “But I know he would be livid that the city is treating me this way.”

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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 cjoyner@ajc.com.