Scituate's pension hot potato tossed to Town Council

Scituate's pension hot potato tossed to Town Council

SCITUATE - The Scituate Police Pension Committee has dumped into the Town Council's lap the ticklish question of what to do about an estimated $750,000 in alleged pension over-payments to two retired police officers.

Town Treasurer Sharon Johnson, in a letter to the council, said the five-member pension committee believes "the Town Council should determine whether to pursue legal action" against Ken Gaffney and Richard Tucker to compel them to reimburse the pension fund for payments they apparently collected improperly.

The other option, the treasurer noted in her Nov. 22 letter to Council President Charles Collins Jr., is to have the town replenish the police pension fund through increased annual contributions.

"If the (pension) plan is to remain solvent," Johnson wrote, "the funds must be replenished, either through reimbursement by Gaffney and Tucker or by the Town Council, in the form of an increased annual required contribution (ARC) to the plan."

Collins told The Valley Breeze & Observer that the council held a meeting to discuss the situation and has asked Town Solicitor David M. D'Agostino for more information before deciding on a course of action. "If we can recoup the money, we will," Collins said. "But at the same time, we don't want to spend good money after bad."

He seemed slightly taken aback by the pension panel's action. "I figured the place for it to be handled was with the pension board," Collins said.

Johnson in a telephone interview noted that the pension panel has been extensively looking into this for about 10 months and has been working with attorney Tim Bliss. She called the situation a "very difficult" one because "there is no easy answer, no simple solution."

Eventually the pension committee decided the ultimate decision must be with the Town Council because, Johnson explained, "we (pension committee) can't authorize the use of town funds" to mount a legal battle. Johnson said the pension panel voted unanimously "not to put at risk already-strained" pension fund assets by financing a legal challenge.

With assets of about $4 million, according to Johnson, the pension fund currently is about 30 percent funded. The full ARC was made in the current fiscal year, along with an extra $100,000, and will be made again in the next, she said. There are currently 16 retired police officers receiving pensions and 17 active officers still working.

One question Collins said the town solicitor has been asked to clarify is exactly how much money is under dispute. He said one of the two retirees left the police force to collect his police pension "more than 20 years ago," but he is not certain the $750,000 estimate is accurate.

Tucker, a former police captain, after he retired first worked as emergency management director and then became assistant highway director at the same time, while collecting his police pension. Gaffney, a former sergeant, worked for the town as a computer technician after his retirement and, like Tucker, collected his police pension. Both resigned the civilian jobs when told their pension benefits would be discontinued, Johnson said in her letter.

Collins, retired deputy chief of police, worked with both men on the police force. He said he is certain that the decision to have the retirees work for the town was done to save money, estimating that at least $85,000 was saved over four years. Collins, in fact, as a council member was the one who suggested hiring Tucker after his retirement.

Collins said he was never aware that it was in any way improper to have the retirees return as town employees and collect their police pensions at the same time. The former town treasurer, Ted Przybyla, told The Valley Breeze & Observer last April that he, too, did not realize there was anything wrong with it.

Johnson in her letter says the pension committee by unanimous vote decided it was a violation of the town's police retirement plan for the two retirees to collect pension benefits while working for the town as civilians. "The committee determined last year that the plan prohibits the payment of pension benefits to active employees of the town of Scituate," her letter states.

In a related matter, in April last year, the town moved to collect about $11,000 in aggregate from seven police retirees, including Collins, who received too much in pension COLAs - cost of living adjustments - that were wrongly computed under Przybyla's watch.

Elected in November 2012 and taking office a year ago, Johnson is a Democrat and the Town Council is made up of Republicans, but she denied the idea that she is any way playing politics with the pension overpayments. She noted that two Republican council members - William Hurry Jr. and David Hanna Jr. - are on the pension committee. Other members are citizens Don Delaere and Eric Rollinson.