AUGUSTA, GA — Augusta public safety workers are pushing to have their retirement benefits computed with a larger multiplier that’s being used for another group of city employees.
The employees are all participants in the Georgia Municipal Employee Benefits System, or GMEBS, a defined benefits plan managed by the Georgia Municipal Association. As of last year, GMEBS had some 2,316 active participants in Augusta government, close to 80 percent of the workforce.
Generally, employees and the government pay into the program during an employee’s career with the government. When employees retire, the invested funds are paid to them in a monthly benefit calculated based on their final average salary, years of service and a multiplier.
After studying plan documents, however, a growing group of public safety employees have taken note that not all GMEBS retirement benefits are being computed in the same way, despite the employee contribution being the same for all – four percent of an employee’s annual gross salary.
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Several who attended a recent city pension and audit subcommittee to press the issue were referred to an upcoming Tuesday meeting, but not before one firefighter, Charles Coleman, voiced their concerns.
“We found out there’s three different calculations that HR uses at retirement,” Coleman said. “Everybody pays a four percent contribution, but some people get a 2.5 percent multiplier. Employees of the old city have a dynamic break point that brings them to two percent. But everybody else gets 1.65 percent.”
The 2.5-percent multiplier came into existence in 2011, when the city created a “GMEBS II” for former employees of Augusta Planning Commission, according to plan documents. That year, a government reorganization moved city planning staff out from under the appointed planning commission board into a regular department, reporting to the city administrator.
The larger multiplier means a planning commission retiree who worked 25 years with a final average salary of $50,000 might receive a $2,604 monthly benefit, while a typical employee subject to the 1.65 percent multiplier would get $1,719 a month.
GMEBS II remains one of two active Augusta GMEBS plans, according to a January report from the state Department of Audits. The report said the plan is fully funded, with $3.3 million in assets, 110 percent of what is needed to cover projected retirement plan payments to members.
GMEBS I, the plan to which most city employees are members, is funded at about 91 percent, with $122.9 million in assets to cover projected liabilities of $135.7 million, the report said.
While all GMEBS II members are subject to the 2.5 percent multiplier, GMEBS I members fall into nine different classes based on when they joined the plan, whether they were employed by the pre-consolidation city government and other factors. Former city employees with 25 years of service can have part of their pension calculated by a multiplier of 2 percent, but that represents few from among the Richmond County Sheriff’s Office and Richmond County Marshal’s Office.
Police and fire unions have distributed materials about the matter to city commissioners, who would have to approve any changes, but most commissioners said they had not yet familiarized themselves with the matter. Extending a higher multiplier to hundreds of employees would cost the government, which must monitor and report its retirement plan liability, but it’s the fair thing to do for public safety workers who put their lives on the line, said several who plan to attend the Tuesday pension meeting.
“The Police Benevolent Association is assisting with this to make sure that it’s equal for all employees,” said David James, a law enforcement officer and the chairman of the Southern States Police Benevolent Association’s CSRA chapter political action committee.
James said better benefits would keep good officers on the job and help assure their families’ futures.
“It would help assist in retaining police or fire because in this line of work, it’s a tough job and you have spouses that will ask their significant other not to do this (job),” James said.
Richmond County Marshal Ramone Lamkin said most of his staff fall under GMEBS I, with the lower multiplier.
“It would definitely encourage retention for any agency, to be able to retire and take care of our families at a decent wage,” Lamkin said. “Certain agencies don’t have the retirement plans, and that’s why people move.”