Recap of County Pension Debacle (read for updates)

Let’s review the latest developments of what could be the plot of the next Walker Holmes novel or the script of a Coen Brothers movie.

Since 1997, Escambia County has offered its senior management level staff the option of forgoing the Florida Retirement System for a 401(a) annuity program. Both options cost the county the same.

Last year, Commissioner Robert Bender became only the second elected official to sign up for the 401(a). Several of the senior managers hired by County Administrator Janice Gilley followed his lead.

Why? Because they were shown the program was more lucrative for the participants since the FRS overhead wasn’t deducted from the amount put into their retirement accounts.

Now it appears HR may have misled Bender, the senior managers and Commissioners Steven Barry and Lumon May who switched to the 401(a) after they were re-elected in November.

County Comptroller Pam Childers says the county has miscalculated the contribution rates. She has made the decision to cut the contributions to the 401(a) by 23% for senior staff and 41% for elected officials.


The Comptroller controls the county’s checkbook and determines expenditures are lawful and in accordance with the budget passed by the Escambia County Commission. As she stated on June 3, she is responsible to the voters and Gov. Ron DeSantis.

The County Administrator is in charge of county operations. She and her HR department handle the retirement plans – negotiate contracts, inform employees of options, make recommendations to the board for approval.

Board of County Commissioners votes on the retirement plans and rates presented to them. They make decisions on their individual retirements based on the information provided them and their personal research.

Pam Childers was elected Clerk of Courts and Comptroller in 2012 – the same year Commissioners Barry and May were elected. Commissioner Doug Underhill was elected in 2014; Commissioner Jeff Bergosh 2016; and Commissioner Bender 2018. Janice Gilley became county administrator on July 1, 2019.

According to her memo, Childers says the misinterpretation of the contribution rates for the 401 (a) occurred “a few years back, around 2011.”

Until 2019, few people, other than HR directors, signed up for the 401(a). No one told the other constitutional officers – such as Tax Collector, Property Appraiser and Supervisor of Elections – about the program’s lucrative aspects for participants.

The county commission approved budgets for FY 2012, 2013, 2014, 2015, 2016, 2018, 2019, 2020 and 2021 based on rates given to them by the county administrators and their HR directors. Childers signed the checks to the vendor running the program for each of those years.

Her reason for failing to review the 401(a) contribution rates was the program had too few participants to be on her radar. The failure occurred over eight years under her time as Comptroller.

Childers says that her staff began researching the 401(a) rates this time last year when she saw so many of the new senior managers take advantage of it.

The Comptroller didn’t voice her concerns to the BCC before the FY 2020-21 rates went into effect on July 1, 2020. She says she mentioned it to Gilley but didn’t say when she did. Childers didn’t mention it to the HR Director Jana Still or County Attorney Alison Rogers.

She also didn’t mention her concerns to Commissioner Barry, even though she knew he was reviewing the plan.

At the June 3 meeting, Childers didn’t mention her research of the rates when she spoke after the commissioners had voted for the county attorney to review legality about a possible settlement for those not informed about the supposed benefits of the 401(a).

The settlement discussion may not have ever happened if Childers shared her findings or even just her concerns about the contribution rates to 401(a) program.

Childers wants to blast the commissioners for not doing their own research on the retirement options, but wants a pass on her eight years of not discovering what she sees as an issue with the rates.

She doesn’t want to blame County Administrator Janice Gilley, who saw her new hires sign up for the 401(a) in record numbers and didn’t review the rates.

And she doesn’t want to be held accountable for not telling anyone about her concerns for nearly year.

There is more.

Steven Barry has been hit for voting on the renewal of the 401(a) contract in 2016 and therefore, he shouldn’t be allowed to claim ignorance of the benefits of the plan.

Childers and her staff were at the meeting when Barry cast his vote. That would have been the perfect time for her to raise an objection to the program or conduct an analysis of the rates. She didn’t and instead continued to sign checks for the program.

Update 3 p.m. 6/16/21

Former HR Director Tom Turner tells Inweekly that county’s budget department has determined the contribution rates. Gilley’s chief budget officer is Amber McClure, who is enrolled in the 401(a) plan.

As I have written, the political gamesmanship and finger-pointing needs to stop. An independent investigation needs to be done of the HR department and how it has handled the retirement programs. Let’s hope Childers will turn over her research to the investigators.


5 thoughts on “Recap of County Pension Debacle (read for updates)

  1. Wow. So just to be clear, Rick, from the rock solid timeline you laid out above:

    In the picture Wonderwoman painted of the benefits debacle…

    Why not? Plenty of blame to go around here, and the BOCC has GOT to do a better job of not just passing whatever crap their department heads sling in front of them, blinking into the distance when their ludicrous justifications from the podium are actually as implausible as they sound.

    Let’s hope this sounds a warning bell for a return to rigor during the meetings, because it’s clear right now that the BOCC are being duped by Janice Gilley and her staff–and that includes long-term staff–even worse than when Jack Brown had the executive helm. Whatever can be done policy-wise, while remaining within state statute per non-interference, the Board must take the strongest possible approach in reforming this County from its bloated bureaucracy downward.

    If they can’t trust their Administrator, their Attorney is only quasi honest, the department heads have never stopped gaming them, and now the Clerk of Court is willing to go off the rails in an embarrassing fashion–which, given her duties as constitutional officer and the trust she holds from the people, is really the worst of it so far–then it looks like the four sane commissioners had better ban together and find a legal but strong prescription for cleaning up this County.

    As an ancillary benefit, tomorrow we’ll also get to see once for all whether Robert Bender thinks his best long ball is with the Escambia taxpayers and his peers on thes dais or with the Downtown power brokers. He needs a win with his constituents, that’s for sure, after being spun up into a wailing dervish at the last meeting, where he actually begged the BOCC to let him just go ahead and raise taxes on his constituents, for the love of all that’s holy.

    As for Ms. Childers, I am just so disappointed in her devolving into these petty political grudges. It’s not a good look for her, and she doesn’t do it very well. I suspect this is a Undergillian orchestration in the background, with the Clerk’s Office being manipulated into doing something dumb. Hope Andy Marlette knows how to stick a Pinocchio’s nose onto that outfit.

  2. Tom,

    State law made it exclusively available o senior managers.

    All the senior managers and the commissioners were told what the rates were by county staff. The HR director, administrator and Comptroller didn’t give them any option that reform was a possible. Comptroller Childers only shared her findings late Monday afternoon.

    The voting bloc – Barry, May and Bergosh – is another myth. Bergosh came on board in 2016 – four years after May and Barry. When May and Barry came on in 2012, the commissioners were Gene Valentino, Wilson Robertson and Grover Robinson. The votes have swung various directions since then – though most often the commissioners tend to work towards agreement, with very few 3-2 votes.

    That being said, Commissioner Underhill has had trouble finding anyone to vote in favor of his motions.

  3. As a former HR director from 2012 to 2017 let me provide information that is first hand to me. When I was hired by Randy Oliver, who was fired about three days before my first day on the job, I had determined I would not work the 8 years required for vesting under the FRS defined benefit plan. I was told I had the option of a defined contribution plan where the County’s required funding in the defined benefit plan would be placed in my deferred compensation account. I chose that plan and initially the contribution, to my recollection, was in the range of 6 to 8%. HR did not at any time, while I was there, determine the contribution to the defined contribution plan. That was set in the budget by the budget department. I never received any information from FRS about required contributions to the pension plan. I believe some time in 2013 I noted on my pay advice the amount added to my deferred compensation account increased significantly – I think more than double. I called the budget department to report what I thought was an error in my pay. I was told the amount I was being credited was increased as the required FRS defined benefit pension funding had increased. I do know this plan was often presented to directors hired by Jack Brown as several of them were also not intending to work long term or other reasons. The plan, along with the FRS defined benefit plan, was presented to me in the normal on boarding process. The amount of the contribution changed annually as the FRS funding requirement changed. At no time in my employment period was I ever involved in any discussion or meeting in regard to setting the amount of the contribution to the defined contribution plan or determining what portion of the required FRS funding for the defined benefit plan should be used for the defined contribution plan.

  4. The writer stated that the obscenely generous 401a plan costs Escambia County the same amount as the FRS plan.

    But does it cost more to the state of Florida?

    If the costs are the same, why is it exclusively available to upper management employees?

    And are the high administrative costs of the FRS plan fixed or variable? If those are fixed costs, then there is zero savings if individuals abandon that plan.

    It is telling that, after learning of this obscenely generous plan, Mr. Barry and Mr. May did NOT attempt reform Instead they attempted to climb aboard that gravy train.

    May, Barry, and Bergosh have established a majority voting block through which they have run this county for nearly ten years. If the county has problems, a large portion of the blame should be attributed to them.

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