Retirement benefit discussion tabled

Published 7:27 pm Wednesday, December 13, 2017

The LaGrange City Council and Mayor Jim Thornton voted 4-3 Tuesday night to table the discussion of raising council member retirement benefits until a later time.

The council’s vote ended tied 3-3 with Tom Gore, Mark Mitchell and Nick Woodson, one of two council members retiring at the end of the month, voting in favor of tabling the vote. Norma Tucker, who is also set to retire, LeGree McCamey and Willie Edmondson voted against. Thornton broke the tie by voting to table the discussion.

Woodson changed his vote from last month, when he was one of four council members that approved updating the plan through the Georgia Municipal Association, which oversees all city retirement benefits. Although GMA approved an increase to retirement benefits, the council would still need to approve the amendment for the change to take effect.

The proposed amendment would have doubled council retirement pay from $25 a month per year of service to $50 a month per year of service.

“When I voted for it before, it bothered me ever since,” Woodson said. “It just seemed like something that I shouldn’t have done. It seemed like something that should have been done years before, and it wasn’t done. We talked about it. … This was really not the proper time for me to make a motion.”

Other council members worried that keeping benefits at below average rates could discourage qualified candidates from stepping forward in future elections. According to information gathered by city staff, LaGrange is well below the average $38 average (per year served) when compared to Georgia cities of similar size. 

“Our retirement is lower than anybody around us for a city of our size,” Edmondson said. “Even the salaries that we get. I’m not in it for the salary. I’m not in it for the retirement, but there are others that are others that are coming behind us that are possibly going to make great councilmen and councilwomen that would serve, but they can’t serve because the salary is so low. They can’t even get off their job. It wouldn’t even be worth getting off their job trying to come and serve.”

Tucker questioned if there was ever a right time to hold the discussion since the cycle of elections and retirement is continuous for the council. The last change to retirement or benefits occurred before Tucker took office 12 years ago, and she argued that at some point, someone has to step forward and approve an increase. No timeline was given on when the retirement benefits will be brought back up.

“It is not for the retirement benefit for me,” Tucker said. “I have been truly blessed in serving the community and meeting some people that I would not have met had it not been for me serving on council, and I dare say that the people who continually reelected myself and Councilman Woodson gave their vote of approval because we are two of three who are currently eligible for retirement from the council, and so I think if it were not us tooting our own horn, if you will (not) then who?”

Edmondson shared similar thoughts.

“The retirement has been like this for years, and if we don’t do something, the people who are coming behind us are going to be facing the same thing that we are facing now,” he said. “If you are talking about because Mr. Woodson is going off council, it didn’t look good for him to make the motion and Ms. Norma (Tucker) to second the motion because they are going off council, well we’ve got to have some guts and do something. If we don’t do this, we will be in the same place, and the ones who are coming behind us are going to have the same thing.”

All of the councilmembers who spoke at the meeting emphasized that they do not serve on the city council for the pay or retirement benefits.

“If it was for the money, none of us would be here,” McCamey said. “I’m just being honest, if it were for that the idea and the opportunity to serve people (is the reason we serve). This has been a wonderful great experience in learning and still learning because things change. You know they change on the fly, but I do think at some point, at some time, and it may not be now, we will continue to have this battle.”

The funds for the council member retirement plans comes from a retirement plan that the city pays into for all city employees using primarily funds from city services.

“The city operates without property taxes,” said City Manager Meg Kelsey. “We do have sales tax for the City of LaGrange, but we are an enterprise city, so we are funded off of electric sales, water and sewer sales, sanitation and subtitle to the landfill. All of those different enterprise funds actually support the City of LaGrange operations which help support also benefits, and this is a retirement benefit that we pay into through GMA.”

Thornton offered few words throughout the discussion of council benefits, but when the three to three vote to table the amendment required him to break the tie, he did speak on the matter of council pay and benefits.

“If you look at the amount of time that council members and the mayor put into service, the salary is low for sure, but I think I agree with everyone who says that this is not what we want — we did not get into it for the money,” Thornton said. “It is a public service, so I think we all knew what we were getting in for when we ran for election. I think the same thing is true of the retirement benefit. We all know what that is.”

Thornton said that he believed more discussion would be beneficial in making a decision on retirement benefits and cast the tiebreaking vote to table the proposal to a later date.

Thornton closed the discussion with one final comment.

“I think there is wisdom in the state law which says that if we vote to change our salary, it cannot take effect until after the next election intervenes,” Thornton said. “I think there is wisdom in that because it makes sure that these actions get taken in the cold light of day, that they are well reported, and that people have the opportunity to discuss it as part of a reelection campaign or challenge.”

The LaGrange City Council is scheduled to meet again on Thursday, Dec. 21 at 5:30 p.m. at 208 Ridley Avenue.