In the battle to stop Fairfax County Sheriff Stan Barry (D) from winning reelection this year, Republicans think they have dug up a powerful weapon from the arcane complexities of deferred retirement benefits.
In a video and several campaign press releases, Republicans accuse Barry of gaming the pension system by enrolling in the county’s Deferred Retirement Option Program (DROP) so that he could amass a lump sum retirement benefit of approximately $1 million — and then keep on working.
The GOP accuses Barry of seeking personal gain through the “blatant abuse” of a program that allows employees to create the lump sum over three years but also forces them to surrender their jobs afterward. County officials said the program was set up for county employees and never envisioned as an option for an elected official who could be returned to office.
“It goes to Stan Barry’s honor and integrity,” Fairfax County Republican Committee chairman Anthony Bedell said Friday. “Technically, he’s not violating the law. But the point is he found a loophole. Is this who you want for your sheriff? A guy who is walking between the raindrops to game the system?”
Last week the GOP unveiled a “DROP Stan Barry” video using clips from a June 7 Board of Supervisors meeting to make the case that both Democratic and Republican supervisors were outraged by Barry’s use of a loophole. The GOP also posted documents calculating how much Barry stood to collect on his $161,000 salary. Republicans said the party plans to keep hammering at the issue until Election Day on Nov. 8.
But in an interview late Friday, Barry said Republicans have ginned up a bogus allegation from the complexities of the DROP program to help their own candidate for sheriff, Bill Cooper.
“They’re saying explicitly I will fleece the county of a million dollars if I am reelected,” Barry said. “The short answer is that I will not collect one penny if I am reelected.”
Under an arrangement that Barry said had been vetted by the county attorney’s office, Barry would not collect any lump sum until his term was completed. Instead, the benefits would be put aside in a separate account. Further, those benefits would not accrue interest, as other employees’ DROP accounts do, Barry said.
Nor would he receive additional retirement credits for years of service during his term, Barry said. If anything, the arrangement would save the county money, Barry said.
Barry also accused the GOP of exaggerating how much money he would receive even if he were to collect the lump sum, saying the $1 million figure based is “totally made up.”
“I have to hand it to them,” Barry said, adding that the GOP has picked an issue whose details are complicated to explain to voters.
The DROP program, which became effective July 1, 2005, was set up to give employees more flexibility in managing their retirement benefits. Under DROP, an employee who is eligible to retire can choose to continue working for three years. In that time, the employee would continue collecting a salary, while retirement benefits would be placed in a special interest-bearing account. Interest is computed at an annual interest rate of 5 percent and compounded monthly.
However, those additional three years in the DROP program would not be scored as additional years of service — which would boost the employee’s payouts later. When the three years are up, the employee would also be required to leave his post.
Besides giving employees flexibility, the plan was supposed to enhance workplace planning for the county. County managers would have a more definite idea of when an employee would actually leave and would have more time to train successors.
At the June 7 meeting, the board deferred action to study the issue further before acting to close the loophole for elected officials.
Supervisor Michael Frey (R-Sully) said Friday said that because Barry had enrolled in DROP, he should not have run for reelection. Frey said it’s not fair that other county employees would be required to retire after three years of DROP, but that Barry could collect the lump sum and keep working if voters return him to office.
“He made a decision, and he needs to stick with it,” Frey said.