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Concerns Over Double-Dipping in Lorain

Any Ohio government employee, whether they're hired, appointed or elected, has the ability to retire and go back to their same job. It became legal in 2000, when the measure was buried in a massive bill to update the Ohio Public Employment Retirement System, or P.E.R.S., System.

Tom Sherman: In 2001, judges in Cincinnati took advantage that the law had been repealed and the issue of double-dipping came up again.

That's Tom Sherman, government relations officer for the P.E.R.S. System. He says that same year, legislators recognized elected officials were the only public servants not dependent on another person to get their jobs back. They could be re-elected without voters being any the wiser. So a new law required candidates to notify their Board of Elections of their intent to retire and seek re-election, 90 days ahead of a primary.

In Lorain County, Judges David Basinski, Thomas Janas, Edward Zaleski, and Paulette Lilly intend to do this. But it may not be the most financially prudent thing to do according to Sherman. He says the more years one works, the fatter their pension gets.

Tom Sherman: So instead of 66% of the final average salary, it could go up to 100%. So, you are giving up something when you decide to do this.

But still the law permits the practice. And while it may seem like the "double-dipping" of taxpayer dollars, Judge Basinski, at 68 years old, says technically it's not.

David Basinski: The income sources are separate; you're not being paid for the same jobs. The retirement plan is one that we have contributed to, it is not as if the county provided it.

But that's not exactly the case. Employees like Basinski contribute 9% of their salary to their pension - the state adds 13%. Another argument the judges make in their defense is the practice doesn't cost the taxpayer any additional money. Here's Judge Janas.

Thomas Janas: If an elected official would retire, that person would receive retirement. And then, whoever filled that spot of the elected would then be paid a salary.

Judge Zaleski says people in the private sector, past retirement age like himself, do this all the time.

Edward Zaleski: Our steel mill, for example... has 300 employees retired, and they were hired back at the same rate of pay. And it's done quite a bit among the fire departments, police departments, supervisors of school, those types of things.

And finally, Judge Lilly, at age 52, thinks if she doesn't retire her health insurance will change.

Paulette Lilly: There will be less coverage for anyone in the P.E.R.S. System that hasn't retired prior to 2006.

But Sherman at the P.E.R.S. system says those changes will only apply to people hired after 2003. Lilly and the other 3 judges don't fit into that category.

If these judges retire, they'll collect pensions worth $50- to $80,000 a year. If they're re-elected, they'll be paid a salary of $116,000 on top of that. Then Sherman says a retirement annuity account based on market forces will start. So he says, there is, in effect, no additional cost to the tax payer for this practice.

Tom Sherman: Either way, there is going to be money coming into the retirement system on behalf of that position. If it's something the electorate disapproves of, they have the right to express that disapproval at the ballot box.

One man's counting on voters to feel this way - Avon Lake Attorney Kreig Brusnahan. He's running against Judge Janas in the November election.

Kreig Brusnahan: These judges are saying they can't live on $116,000 a year. Quite frankly, it's a slap in the face to all the hard-working men and women in Lorain County.

Brusnahan says just because you can do something doesn't mean you should.

Kreig Brusnahan: And I think it falls into that category. Legally yes, they're allowed to do this; ethically and morally, I think it's reprehensible when you've got people at Ford that aren't sure they're going to have a job next week. And you're got folks at U.S. Steel and they're not even sure they're going to get a pension when they retire.

But it's the voters who have the ultimate say on this matter. An at a mall parking lot in Elyria, the response was mixed.

One: I think it's right if they've been doing a good job and they deserve their pension, they should get it.

Two: Why not give somebody else the opportunity for a job? If you're going to retire, retire.

Three: I'm not going to vote for any of them if they run again. They make a very good wage - why should they be paid twice that? I don't like it at all.

Four: They've earned their retirement pay and whatever they do after retirement is up to them.

Only Judge Basinski is running completely unopposed. The three other judges, Janas, Lilly, and Zaleski, have challengers. They'll learn the true opinion of Lorain County Voters in the November.

Lisa Ann Pinkerton, 90.3.