A fight between City Hall and the Municipal Police Employees Retirement System has called into question a distinction that Baton Rouge officials started making 18 years ago to label the type of overtime police officers work and allow some of those hours to count toward retirement benefits.
The Municipal Police Employees Retirement System, MPERS, has told Baton Rouge officials it will not longer let police officers hired since 2000 receive approval to retire or draw benefits. MPERS accused Baton Rouge police of improperly counting overtime pay for those officers toward their retirement compensation, a practice that the retirement system calls a violation of state law.
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Ben Huxen, the retirement system's executive director and general counsel, said this week officers will not be able to retire and draw benefits until the city-parish clears up how much of police retirement compensation is based on salaries and how much is based on overtime work.
City-parish and BRPD Union officials, however, have pushed back. Mayor-President Sharon Weston Broome sent a recent letter to Metro Council members that said she stands behind law enforcement and will "protect the interests of the city-parish." And one particular issue both current and former city-parish officials have seized is the distinction between voluntary and mandatory overtime, saying that the retirement system almost two decades ago agreed to count so-called mandatory OT toward employees' benefits.
Former BRPD Chief Greg Phares, who ran the department when BRPD switched to using MPERS as its retirement system in 2000, remembered deciding 18 years ago what counted as voluntary and what counted as mandatory overtime. Among the types of work that the city-parish Finance Department counts as mandatory: work on holidays, court appearances, directing traffic for football games, directing traffic after a homicide and working special events.
"It was my understanding the reason I was asked to sign off on those categories of overtime was to help MPERS determine which categories would be applicable toward retirement," Phares said.
The Finance Department classifies voluntary overtime as work in which officers are usually paid by grants, such as a DWI task force, a targeted violent crimes program and a Louisiana Highway Safety program.
Baton Rouge police Officer Dominic Distefano II made $61,000 in 2008. By 2011, he’d almost doubled those earnings, and in 2013, he made $135,223.
Broome's administration and previous mayoral administrations took the position that mandatory overtime should count toward retirement compensation. They also believed MPERS agreed with them.
"We said, how can we mandatorily require them to work overtime and not count it as a retirement benefit?" said William Daniel, the former city-parish chief administrative officer.
But while City Hall has kept tabs on the different overtime categories, Huxen said they do not matter. He said MPERS should not pay retirement benefits based on any overtime calculations, regardless of whether they were mandatory of voluntary.
Huxen's position is at least a slight change from his predecessors at MPERS. He took over the system six months ago, and acknowledged that MPERS released a directive in 2006 saying it would count overtime paid during emergencies toward retirement. The policy was developed out of the extra hours police worked during Hurricanes Katrina and Rita in 2005, he said.
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But he cited the state law that says MPERS "shall not include overtime" in its definition of earnable compensation, saying that state law does not even carve out an exemption for emergency overtime hours worked. Huxen also pointed to the agreement between MPERS and the city-parish from 2000, which does not include the word "overtime" in it. The agreement is also focused on police officers who transferred from the City-Parish Employees' Retirement System into MPERS, rather than those who were hired after MPERS took over.
Huxen challenged the assertion from some in the city-parish, including Metro Councilman Buddy Amoroso, that the agreement from MPERS to count overtime in retirement was somewhat of a "gentleman's agreement."
"I don't know how, when you're dealing with $75 million, you don't put it in writing," he said, referencing the agreement from 2000 when the city-parish transferred more than $72 million to the retirement system.
Police retirees with at least 25 years of service usually receive retirement checks between 75 percent and 100 percent of the average of their highest earning years, The Advocate has previously reported.
Current city-parish officials said they could not comment on the MPERS disagreement because of a lawsuit. MPERS filed a suit in 2016 against the city-parish that the retirement system considers dormant.
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Other city-parish employees, including firefighters and public works employees, can count overtime toward their retirement compensation in the separate City-Parish Employees' Retirement System, which handled all police officers before 2000. Police officers hired before that date also can apply overtime to their retirement, whether they remained in CPERS or moved to MPERS.
Huxen said, though, that BRPD is the only police department MPERS oversees that counts OT.
BRPD Union President Sgt. Bryan Taylor recalled police officers being told in 2000 that switching to MPERS as their retirement system would save enough money for officers to receive substantial raises. But he said the raises were never as large as were promised.
Taylor argued that officers who have been paying into the retirement system for the past 17 years, including their overtime, deserve to receive the benefit. He and Phares also brought up past scandals at MPERS.
"In the years since 2000, there have been significant problems at MPERS, including criminal activity," Phares said.
MPERS faced heavy criticism more than a decade ago when the retirement system invested in golf courses in Bossier Parish. The retirement system had a shortfall of more than $300 million at the time, and multiple audits found that the golf courses continued to drain the retirement system, according to Advocate archives.
"We're paying all this money in and they're pointing the finger at us?" Taylor said. "But at what point do we raise hell because they wasted [money] on a fricking golf course for their personal gain?"
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The State Inspector General — who Phares previously worked for — started an investigation in 2009 into Randy Zinna, an attorney for MPERS, for real estate transactions near a golf course. Zinna admitted in 2011 that he defrauded two public pensions, along with an elderly widow and others for more than $1.5 million. He defrauded MPERS $434,164 and CPERS $340,392. In 2011, Zinna was sentenced to 30 months in federal prison and ordered to pay restitution.
MPERS is still not fully funded. Huxen said that the system is slightly more than 71 percent funded, but is paying full benefits to all of its current retirees.
"We're not trying to hurt police, we're just trying to uphold a fiduciary duty," Huxen said.