Turner backs off pension plan

After a day of back-and-forth dialog and intense media and community scrutiny, Atlanta Police Chief George Turner backed off from a proposal Thursday that would have allowed him to start receiving his pension now, even though he is still working.

The plan, which many around city hall called unprecedented, would have allowed Turner, 51, to briefly retire so that he could start earning his pension. Then he would immediately be re-hired at his current salary of $200,211.

Late Thursday afternoon, Atlanta Mayor Kasim Reed said Turner backed away from the plan for one reason: It didn’t make financial sense.

Reed said that by tapping into his pension base on Turner's previous salary of $107,000, the chief would be receiving substantially less than he would at his new salary, which would allow his pension to grow bigger and faster.

“The chief had a chance to have multiple conversations with his financial advisors, who strongly counseled him against it,” Reed said.

News of the proposal comes at a time when the city is trying to come to grips with its tenuous pension plan. The city has put together a pension reform panel to come up with solutions for some distressing statistics.

Over the past decade, Atlanta’s payments toward pensions has risen 13 percent annually. In 2009, the city paid out $144 million on pensions, compared to $55 million in 2001.

About 20 percent of the city’s annual budget is spent on pension payments.

So after a few days of confusion and backlash, the question becomes: What happened?

On Tuesday, the council’s public safety committee listened to the Turner proposal. On Wednesday, the finance committee listened to it and the full council was prepared to take it up at next Monday’s meeting, although there was no clear consensus on which way it would vote.

“I am not initially supportive,” councilwoman Felicia Moore said Thursday, before Turner’s withdrawal. “This sets a precedent and I don’t know if it is a precedent we want to set.”

Reed said the spark for the proposal came from him. When he hired Turner, he urged him to move inside the city limits, which he couldn’t afford to do on his previous salary.

“Chief Turner made his home and raised his family in Cobb, because of the cost of living when he became a police officer. That was with a salary of $107,000 and he was raising a family and putting four kids through college,” Reed said. “I asked him to move into Atlanta, because that would send an important signal.”

But with the depressed housing market, Reed said Turner was having a difficult time selling his house, much less purchasing a new home in Atlanta.

“So he asked if we could use the dollars in his pension that he had already built up,” Reed said. “He met with [Chief Operating Officer] Peter Aman and we agreed on it. We sent a paper [to the council], because this was the most transparent approach to this. Everything was open and direct.”

All day Thursday, media tracked the story through City Hall, while several media blogs lit up with comments – mostly negative – about the proposal.

“I have been taken aback by the pushback. I don’t like the tone of the discussion,” Reed said late in the day. “All we were trying to do was help the chief move back into Atlanta.”

Carlos Campos, a spokesman for Turner, said the chief would have no comment. Turner was out of town at a conference Thursday. Reed said while he still wishes Turner to relocate in the city, he will let the chief do so when he can.

Ironically, had Turner taken his pension based on his $107,000 salary he earned as a precinct chief, he would have actually saved the city thousands of dollars in the long run.

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“I’m not going to force him to do anything that would be detrimental financially to him and his family,” Reed said. “I am not going to put the chief in a situation that in the long-term is not in his best interest.”

Although he commands perhaps the most significant unit in city government, at least four city employees earn more than Turner.

While not indicating how he would have voted, Councilman Ivory Lee Young, who chairs the public safety committee, said Turner deserved to get his pension early

“If we think objectively, this is something that rarely occurs,” Young said. “He served this city for 30 years with valor and he deserves his pension. He should be honored for his 30 years of service.”

Young noted that former chief Richard Pennington, 63, came to Atlanta with two pensions, carried over from previous jobs in Washington, D.C. and New Orleans. If one of the outside candidates for Pennington's replacement had been hired instead of Turner, that person would have come to Atlanta with a salary and a pension, he said.

Even though it is unprecedented that a high-ranking city official could retire and be rehired to access his pension, the city does have a track record for hiring former workers.

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