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Countys employees reluctant to retire
From left, Hall County firefighters Jeff Kidd, Andy McCullers, Chad Black and Rod Wilson have a combined total of 82 years of experience on the job. The firefighters are worried about colleagues who must retire by June 30. - photo by SARA GUEVARA

Talk about bad timing.

Milton Keller probably will retire at the end of next month.

The 48-year-old battalion chief, who has more than 26 years of experience with Hall County Fire Services, wants to work. But if Keller and a few dozen other employees don’t retire by June 30, they will lose two-thirds of their pension under a plan the county used until 1998, although they could keep working and accrue more benefits under the county’s new retirement system.

Under the discontinued defined benefit plan, employees could retire when their age and years worked totaled 75, known as the rule of 75. In 1998, the county adopted a 401a retirement plan, where employees contribute more of their money, invest it and retire whenever they want.

In August 2006, the Hall County Commission voted to credit firefighters with hours they worked with Hall County in the 1980s, when private companies operated the fire department. The bonus years boosted Keller to the 75 mark.

"They’re forcing me, financially, to retire," Keller said. "Forty-eight’s really, really, really young to be retiring."

One decade, two plans

Firefighters like Keller, in the middle of their careers in 1998, were given 10 years by the county to make a decision: retire by 2008 when they meet the rule of 75 under the old, defined benefit plan, or retire later under the new, defined contribution plan.

"It’s two different pension programs. We’re funding both of them for these 10 years, so somebody has the opportunity to take one or the other," Assistant County Administrator Phil Sutton said.

If not, employees would be "double-dipping," said Charley Nix, Hall County director of human resources.

"Otherwise the county would be contributing to both funds for you," Nix said.

Beginning in the late 1980s and early 1990s, many large companies switched their retirement plans from defined benefit to defined contribution.

A defined contribution plan allows employees to contribute part of their salary into a fund periodically. The employer matches a portion of that money, and the combined amount will be invested.

"Most people are going to use mutual funds," said Johnny Johnson, a financial adviser for Raymond James, a financial services company. "A mutual fund is basically a diversified pool of investments."

Johnson said there are different ways people can invest, including stocks, bonds and real estate, all with varying levels of risk involved. This can be more of a gamble, because the money set aside is invested instead of saved. The amount employees receive depends upon the performance of their investments.

Many like these plans because they can be taken from job to job. It gives people more control over how much money they have for retirement and has the potential for a higher return.

A defined benefit plan allows someone to retire at a percentage of what their salary was at the time of retirement. This plan is low risk and less hands-on because it’s controlled solely by the employer.

While both plans can provide a comfortable retirement, "there’s not a cookie-cutter approach to this. It really is an individual decision," Johnson said.

Back to the 1990s

"You’ve got to sort of remember what 1998 looked like, too," Nix said. "To them, in the go-go ’90s, you could get into stocks in the defined contribution plan, and they thought they were going to have $1 million at the end of this time frame. But we all know that hindsight is a wonderful thing, and the stock market hasn’t done what we wanted it to do."

Johnson said it’s important to look at the stock market as a big picture, because it will have ups and downs.

"As a general rule of thumb, the stock market in a year-over-year basis does improve," he said. "If we were to go back to the late ’90s, you almost couldn’t not make money. But 2001, 2002, 2003, those were the worst years in the stock market since the Great Depression."

Nix said he would love to have the money back that his retirement plan lost. "I’ve been beaten up pretty thoroughly since 2000. I think most everybody has," Nix said.

These market low points have left county employees with far less money than they anticipated back in 1998. And many do not want to sacrifice a guaranteed pension to work longer and hope their 401a will catch up. It seems it’s all about the timing.

"If the last 10 years had been like the previous 10 years, you wouldn’t be here talking to us right now," Nix said.

Caught in between

Bad timing caught some younger firefighters off guard as well.

Some, like Chad Black, will not meet the rule of 75 this year, but still are affected by the county’s 1998 plan switch.

Black began his career at the Hall County fire department when he was 18 years old, and he had been with the department 13 years by 1998. The county froze his defined benefit pension plan where it was and he began the defined contribution plan. When he reaches the rule of 75, he will be able to collect his defined benefit pension where it was frozen, along with what he has earned in his 401a.

Black said he doesn’t have a problem with the new plan, just that he had to start it halfway through his career.

"A lot of us that started young, we almost feel like it’s penalized us a little bit," he said.

"The new retirement is not a bad retirement. It just caught some of us in between," Black said. "I could retire in about 4« years if I was still on the old one. Now, I’m looking at another 10, 15, 20 years probably before I could have enough money in there to retire. Now the stock market could all of a sudden do good, but that’s not expected."

Black said he and others in his situation would like to return to the defined benefit pension plan. "Our preference would be to go back to that defined benefit. We would even take the county money and buy back our 10 years and give that money back if we could," he said.

Early retirement offered

The county commission and human resources have communicated with employees over the past few years, and Nix met individually with many who had yet to come to a decision.

"Frankly, the employees have been watching this thing come for the last 10 years," Sutton said.

In 2004, the county offered an early retirement package to anyone who would reach the rule of 75 before June 2008 in an attempt to ease the burden of losing so many senior employees at once. Sutton said 104 people, out of 164 eligible, left at that point.

The early retirement package added four bonus years to the pension plan, granted health insurance for life at 50 percent of the cost and also allowed people to keep the money from the 401a direct contribution plan.

With the end of the 10-year window in sight, Nix said he is still trying to work with people.

"If the economy were better and we were clicking along, we might could take a more immediate look ... to try to see if there are some enhancements we could do. I don’t think we could do it this next budget year," Nix said.

But with a lack of money and a resolution passed 10 years ago before Nix or Sutton were employed by the county, there is only so much that can be done.

"Those were decisions that were made 10 years ago and put into resolutions. Charley and I can’t do anything to change it. We’re simply following the letter of the law," Sutton said.

As the June 30 deadline approaches, some still want the county to offer other options.

Tommy Hulsey is a fire engine driver who meets the rule of 75 this year, but doesn’t want to retire. "I’d love to stay on. I’ve been here 23 years, and I cannot remember a day that I ever dreaded coming to work," said Hulsey, who has lived in Gainesville his whole life. "The bad thing about it is I’ve got nine more shifts, and I hate it when every day clicks by. It’s been a wonderful job, and I’d like to retire on my terms."

"It’s going to be tough, especially in the fire service, trying to start all over again. Maybe something will happen," Hulsey said.

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