The Washington Post

Public pensions, pay move to fore as search gets underway for new Fairfax County executive

When Fairfax County Executive Anthony H. Griffin retires this spring, the boyish-looking, low-key administrator who has managed the government’s daily affairs for more than a decade will leave behind a reputation of a job well done.

What he’ll be taking with him is a traditional government pension that many say is well worth his 23 years of service in Fairfax and typical of the retirement packages that lure and retain talented public servants.

Others say his compensation and retirement benefits are emblematic of a system that has become too generous for taxpayers to sustain, especially in tough economic times when raising revenues has become politically risky.

As the Board of Supervisors pursues a nationwide search for a new county executive, Griffin’s salary and retirement package may offer a glimpse of what it will take to land his successor.

As the board begins work on the next budget, the departing county executive’s compensation could also stoke debate over government salaries and pensions, and whether public employees fare better or worse than peers in the private sector.

The board plans to examine the subject in January with the expected release of a consulting firm’s report on the county’s pay scales and pension plans.

This month, Virginia Gov. Robert F. McDonnell (R) unveiled a $2.2 billion plan to replenish the retirement system for state and local employees, including repaying a portion of the $620 million borrowed from the retirement system in recent years to close a budget shortfall and fund government services. About $1 billion of the $2.2 billion is to be borne by localities.

In interviews, Griffin has said that he chose a career in government because he enjoys public service. He said that, if anything, his salary is relatively low, given his duties on behalf of county residents.

“I would argue they get a good deal,” Griffin said. “I have said to the board they’re going to have sticker shock when they replace me, because if it’s somebody from the outside, they’re going to expect to get more.”

Although his salary is public and Griffin answered several questions about his compensation, he and other county officials declined to go into details about his retirement benefits because the county considers them private and not subject to disclosure under Virginia’s Freedom of Information Act.

Griffin, 64, joined the county in 1989 as a deputy county executive at a salary of $90,257. In December 1999, he signed a contract to become county executive at an annual salary of $155,000. Since then, the Board of Supervisors has given Griffin high marks on annual evaluations and upped his annual salary to $244,990. Like all county employees, he received a 2 percent bump this fall.

Among other provisions, his contract paid for deferred compensation of $8,000 a year, which has grown to at least $14,000 a year and use of a county-owned car, although Griffin opted instead for a $675 monthly allowance.

During the recession, Griffin declined pay increases for three consecutive fiscal years because other employee salaries were frozen, several board members said.

Based on an average salary of $226,522 for the past six years, Griffin’s annual pension would be more than $117,000, or about 52 percent of his average salary for the final six years of service, as estimated by the county’s retirement system Web site.

“I think it’s much, much higher than the normal person gets,” said Frederick A. Costello a retired engineer and member of both the Fairfax County Taxpayers Alliance and the Fairfax County Federation of Civic Associations. Costello has written several reports on county budgetary and compensation issues and calculated Griffin’s pension.

Although Griffin has done a fine job, Costello said, he believes the county executive’s salary and pension put him well ahead of peers in the private sector, especially when factoring in Griffin’s benefits from the county's Deferred Retirement Option Plan. DROP, as the plan is known, allows employees to collect three years of retirement benefits as a lump sum with interest before leaving county employment and collecting a regular pension.

Griffin has confirmed that he entered DROP but declined to disclose what his lump sum payment will be. He indicated the pension benefit calculated by The Washington Post and Costello was higher than what he would receive.

While Griffin’s salary is the county’s highest, he and others say it’s useful to put it in context. As chief executive, he oversees some 12,000 employees — or about as many people employed by Occidental Petroleum Corp. His duties make him a kind of unelected, behind-the-scenes mayor for a jurisdiction of about 1 million — or almost the size of Dallas, whose city manager earns $261,530 a year.

Supervisor John C. Cook (R-Braddock) said Griffin’s salary is “significantly below market,” particularly compared with schools Superintendent Jack D. Dale, whose annual salary as of July 1 was $302,998.

“I think we have to understand that we need to be prepared to pay more than what we’re paying Tony,” Cook said, referring to Griffin’s successor.

But Costello argues that the board has been too generous to county employees at the expense of taxpayers.

“They’re in cahoots with county employees,” Costello said. “This is a voting block.”

A September 2010 report by Costello says that, on balance, county salaries roughly match those in the private sector. Low-skilled county workers earn slightly more than private sector workers, while high-skilled county workers earn about 4 percent less compared with peers in the private sector, the report says.

Costello also said the county’s traditional, defined-benefit pensions are considerably better than the private sector’s retirement benefits. By his calculations, a highly skilled worker in the private sector would need to work longer and earn 40 percent more to match the compensation and retirement benefits of a peer in county government.

But county employees dispute the assertion that their compensation is higher than the private sector’s. A study by the National Institute on Retirement Security found that, after adjusting for education and other factors, state workers’ pay is typically 11 percent less than that of private-sector workers, while local government employees earn 12 percent less. The April 2010 study also says that although pensions make up a larger portion of public workers’ compensation, state workers still earn 6.8 percent less overall than private-sector counterparts, while local government employees earn 7.4 percent less.

“The retirement is what attracts people to the county, not the pay,” said Randy Creller, president of the Fairfax County Employees Advisory Council.

Yet Cook has warned that taxpayers might have to foot more of the bill for county pensions in the future, largely because of declines in the asset value of the county’s three separate pension systems: the Police Officers Retirement System for sworn police officers; the Uniformed Retirement System for sheriff’s deputies, firefighters and rescue personnel; and the Employees’ Retirement System (ERS), which is the largest and covers all other county employees, including Griffin, and some schools employees.

The county’s 2011 Comprehensive Annual Financial Report says that the Employees Retirement System assets equaled about 82.3 percent of liabilities in fiscal 2005. After the recession, its funding ratio decreased to less than 70 percent in July 2010. The unfunded liability for all three pension systems grew to $1.7 billion. As a result, Cook said, the county has had to chip in $35 million in the past two budget cycles.

“They’ve soaked the taxpayers in order to shore up these pension funds,” said Arthur G. Purves, president of the Fairfax County Taxpayers Alliance.

Alarmed by the county’s widening funding gap, Cook sought a comprehensive study of county compensation and retirement benefits. The study, by Chicago-based AON Corp.’s consulting unit, is expected before the board’s personnel committee next month.

But Robert L. Mears, executive director of the Fairfax County Retirement Administration Agency, said the county’s three systems remain on a solid financial footing, at least in part because of his small staff of investment advisers. Their work helped the ERS earn 23.6 percent and 25.2 percent on its investments in the past two years — third best among all such public plans in the United States, Mears said.

“We all went through the financial crisis [when] the market went off a cliff,” Mears said. “But we’ve come through that.”

He said the best incentives he has for luring such crackerjack investment advisers are the pensions they will eventually receive.


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