After a request from Walker County Sheriff Nick Smith, the Walker County voters on Nov. 3 will decide whether to allow elected and appointed county officials to be placed on the state retirement system, phasing out the supernumerary system to save the county about $4 million.
After a request from Walker County Sheriff Nick Smith, county voters on Nov. 3 will decide whether to allow elected and appointed county officials to be placed on the state retirement system, phasing out the supernumerary system to save the county about $4 million over time.
The Walker County Commission voted Monday to put the measure on the ballot, as the Alabama Legislature passed a local bill, Act 2020-99, to allow the vote.
According to the commission resolution, the act "allows for a referendum for this Constitutional Amendment to be voted on by the electors of Walker County to allow the Sheriff of Walker County, the Walker County Revenue Commissioner, or any other elected or appointed Walker County official to participate in the Employees' Retirement System of Alabama in lieu of participating in a supernumerary program or system."
The question on the ballot will read, "Relating to Walker County, proposing an amendment to the Constitution of Alabama of 1901, to provide that elected and appointed officials in Walker County may participate in the Employees' Retirement System in lieu of participating in a supernumerary program or system."
The supernumerary system, on paper putting retired officials on call if needed, was designed many years ago as a way to get around a prohibition in the state against public officials getting retirement, according to the Association of County Commissions of Alabama (ACCA) on its website. However, many counties have passed constitutional amendments abolishing supernumerary and putting them on the state system as a more efficient means to handle retirement.
County Administrator Robbie Dickerson told the commission Monday counties "realized it is such a costly endeavor and it was to everyone's benefit, including the elected officials, to participate in the state retirement system. It was easier to figure out what you would receive. It was easier and more cost effective."
She said Walker County is one of only three counties left in the state on the supernumerary system, which those counties have to pay into.
District 1 Commissioner Keith Davis said after the meeting the probate judge, the circuit judge and the other county judges are on retirement through the Retirement Systems of Alabama, the state retirement system. The sheriff and the revenue commissioner is on supernumerary, while the the coroner and the county commissioners have no retirement system.
"Most counties across the state, they allow their commissioners to participate," he said.
Davis said the coroner and the commissioners could elect to participate in RSA if they wanted to, as any elected official would qualify. However, Davis noted the main reason for the action in the end was the savings, saying that the county stands to save $2.34 million by switching the sheriff to the RSA.
"The revenue commissioner is probably another couple of million, depending on the age of the candidate and whoever replaces (Revenue Commissioner Jerry Guthrie) when he retires," he said. "Over the life of this bill, (taxpayer savings) is probably about $4 million."
Guthrie - who was recently elected to his fifth six-year term - has indicated this current term will likely be his last. He is invested in the supernumerary system, and the next commissioner would then be the first to participate in the state system.
"I'm going to sign out if you don't care," Guthrie said light-heartedly during the meeting.
Dickerson said for a sheriff to use the system, he had to have 16 years of law enforcement time in, as well as 12 years as sheriff. He could draw a percentage of the salary at 55; upon his death, the legal spouse could then draw half the salary.
She said $823,000 has been paid out from 2000 to current in just one of the county's supernumerary funds. "It's a costly endeavor not only for the officials but for the county," she said. "But it also has many stipulations."
An analysis given to commissioners showed the $2.3 million savings assumes the sheriff has served 12 years and lives 30 years after leaving office, and then the spouse lives another 10 years after the sheriff dies. The annual cost over 30 years would be $70,084, or $2,102,544 over 30 years. The spouse would be paid $35,042 over 10 years, for a total cost of $350,424, making for a total cost over 40 years of $2,452,968.
Minus $58,871.16 contributions from the sheriff, that leaves a net cost to the county of $2,394,096.84.
"If (the) sheriff elects to participates in the state retirement system, the only cost to the county is the matching portion of his retirement contribution," the analysis said. Over a 12 year period, that would be an annual cost of $4,335.54, for a total cost of $52,026.48.
"What this really comes down to is who do we want to pay for retirement costs for the sheriff?," the analysis said. "Do we want to fund retirement programs ourselves or let the state do it? In my opinion, this is an easy decision. Allowing the sheriff to participate in the state retirement system will save the county $2,342,070.36," arrived from subtracting the $52,026 from the $2,394,096.84 net supernumerary cost.
Davis noted the commission was not voting to approve the transition that day, but to approve putting the question on the ballot.
Dickerson also noted that the state retirement system "travels with that person" if they leave for other positions, with Smith being an example of how that can happen. "That is a huge plus for everyone," she said.
Davis said after the meeting Smith already had 13 years invested in RSA as a municipal employee in local cities. Instead of taking supernumerary, he decided to eventually buy back the time he served as sheriff if he and others go into the RSA.
"He made the decision to save the taxpayers a lot of money by not taking supernumerary," Davis said, noting Smith suggested approaching local legislators, as well as to the ACCA, which had already been urging the county to transition. He thanked Senate Majority Leader Greg Reed, R-Jasper, and state Reps. Connie Rowe, R-Jasper, and Tim Wadsworth, R-Arley, for passing the enabling legislation for the vote.
Accountant Randy Dodd, a 31-year employee of the state Department of Examiners of Public Accounts who also worked briefly for the county, had looked at the numbers. Davis quoted him saying, "You need to get away from the supernumerary and save the taxpayers a lot of money."
Davis noted that the county is still paying one late official's spouse on the supernumerary system, and was also paying for the late former District Attorney Charles Baker before his passing.
During the meeting, Dickerson noted Smith had written the county a letter saying he wanted to participate in the state system.
"It wasn't until I was elected that I realized that the sheriff doesn't fall under state retirement and don't have an opportunity to participate in RSA," Smith told commissioners, noting he had been in the state system since he was 21 before his November 2018 election as sheriff. "I only like several more years before I get my 25 years."
He confirmed his discussions with commissioners and Dickerson, as well as the decision to opt out of supernumerary to allow voters to pass the measure. "In November, if it passes, I'll just buy my time back that I missed" by not being in the supernumerary, he said.
He also noted history shows it is difficult in Walker County for a sheriff to be elected to three or four terms.
Davis said Guthrie's supernumerary retirement would not be affected by a transition to RSA by the county. He and Probate Judge A. Lee Tucker said Tucker was already in the system, as the state's probate judge association already pushed for changes for probate judges.
The ACCA has been pushing local officials for the change for some time, but the timing seems better now with a new sheriff and the General Election eliminating the cost of a special election, Davis said.
Walker County Superintendent of Education Joel Hagood said his position is already on the state system, but elected school board members do not qualify for retirement.