Miami-Dade County

Miami quietly resurrecting pensions for elected officials

Miami Mayor Tomás Regalado
Miami Mayor Tomás Regalado

Seven years after shutting down a generous retirement fund for elected officials, the city of Miami is quietly resurrecting pensions for the mayor and city commissioners.

Legislation to revive Miami’s Elected Officials Retirement Trust is expected to go before commissioners in September, the Miami Herald has learned. The proposal is part of Mayor Tomás Regalado’s 2017 budget, mentioned in two vague sentences and buried in a 479-page financial document released this month.

Were the pension plan to reopen as intended, elected officials currently enrolled in 401-type retirement plans would have access to a fund that afforded their predecessors annual pensions worth about triple the average pension earned by Florida teachers.

“Some commissioners asked the administration to look into it, and the administration came back with a plan,” Regalado said when asked why the city would bring back the retirement trust, closed in 2009 during a financial crisis. “I won't tell you who the commissioners are. I don't want to put anybody in a situation of [having to answer] ‘Why are you asking for this?’”

I won't tell you who the commissioners are. I don't want to put anybody in a situation of [having to answer] ‘Why are you asking for this?

Mayor Tomás Regalado

No legislation has been drafted yet, according to City Attorney Victoria Méndez, so it’s difficult to say exactly how the proposal will be structured. It’s also unclear whether it would apply to Regalado, who says the $85,000 pension he earned as a commissioner wouldn’t grow as a result of his two terms as mayor, which began in late 2009 after the fund was closed. Commissioner Wifredo “Willy” Gort also earned a meager pension from his previous tenure as a commissioner in the 1990s.

City Manager Daniel Alfonso said the administration’s intent is to revive the old pension fund under the parameters that existed before it was closed to new members and the benefits of vested members, like Regalado and Gort, were frozen. The trust pays any member with seven years of service a guaranteed pension with a value based off annual compensation and each official’s time spent in office.

Former mayor Manny Diaz earned an $82,500 yearly pension after eight years in office. Former Commissioner Marc Sarnoff earned a yearly pension around $62,000 after nine years, according to city records. Former Commissioner Michelle Spence-Jones accrued a $127,000 annual pension, although that had much to do with the substantial back-pay she was owed after being reinstated following a suspension from office.

In contrast, the blue-collar workers who make up the vast majority of the Florida Retirement System receive an average annual pension of about $18,000. The average elected officer in the state’s pension fund earns just under $50,000 a year. The average Miami police and firefighter — whose unions are still waiting for the courts to rule on whether the city improperly forced austerity measures on their pension fund during a financial crisis — earns an annual pension around $57,000.

“I just think it's fair that the elected officials who have been here through the crisis, the bad times and good times, they have a pension,” said Regalado.

But fair or not, no one seems eager to claim ownership of the proposal.

For part-time work, if I serve my four or eight years, I don’t deserve a lifetime pension

Commissioner Ken Russell

Gort said he didn’t ask the administration to revive the retirement trust. Commissioner Ken Russell, who opposed pensions for elected officials as part of his campaign platform last year, said he didn’t either, and said his position hasn’t changed. Commissioner Francis Suarez said he has never favored pensions for commissioners, and questioned whether he could support the budget if it included such a proposal.

“That leaves me in an uncomfortable position,” he said.

Commissioner Frank Carollo said he was unavailable to comment while handling a family emergency. Commissioner Keon Hardemon did not respond to requests for comment left with an office spokeswoman and his cell phone voice mail.

Estimates show the pension plan is expected to cost the city slightly more than $1 million next year — an increase of 23 percent.