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What the Devil won't tell you

Huckelberry's two scoops of a double dip — pension scandal or business as usual?

Pima County's top administrator poised to nearly double income after small cut to salary

 

I’m pissed. Then again, I’m really not. No … no … I am.

Well, wait a minute? Is it really that big of a deal?

It's called a pension "double dip" and Pima County Administrator Chuck Huckelberry just set himself up for one. It's a scandal, right? Yes, it is. And no, it's not.

A clause added to Huckelberry’s newly approved four-year contract extension gives the top dawg on the county staff the option to retire, collect his pension and then stay on as a contractor. He would continue to be paid the same amount as his full current salary, but wouldn't be a direct employee. The move would almost double his income, compared to what the county is now paying him.

Related, April 2022: Huckelberry retired 9 mos. ago, withheld info from Pima County supervisors

Boy, do people familiar with local government hate this double dip.

It just feels sleazy. But is it really? It is. No, it’s not. It's not an uncommon move, from cops to teachers to high-level bureaucrats. It sounds questionable, but it's legal, and generally doesn't cost taxpayers any more money. It's not that different from an military retiree taking a job at Raytheon.

But something about it just doesn't sound right. What I want to tell Huckelberry is: “If you are going to retire, Mr. County Administrator, then retire. Head down to Mexico. Sit on your beach. Pop open a Negro Modelo. Drink it all in. Hey, you deserve it. You got your eff-you money and now you get to enjoy it.”

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“But if you are going to stay on the job, then don’t draw your retirement. Other people can’t. Why can you?”

Outplayed

Very simply, he can because his bosses on the Pima County Board of Supervisors got completely outplayed.

They approved his new contract during the second meeting of a board that includes three new members. They put it off for two weeks, seeming shocked that this contract deal was going to be a thing.

All three newbies had previous elected experience and should have known Huckelberry’s employment contract was up. They didn’t want to give him a raise right away. They didn’t seem particularly interested in bringing on someone new. So they let themselves get completely outflanked by the best politician in Southern Arizona.

He'd proposed a $12,000 raise. Instead, the supervisors cut his pay by $10,000 — all the way down to $292,000.

But right after the executive session in which the supervisors violated the strictures of Arizona's Open Meeting Law to hash out a deal about Huckelberry's continued employment, they approved a contract that affords him the opportunity to retire from county employment and remain in his position as a contractor.

The switch sent a pretty strong signal to observers that the county administrator indeed intends to do so.

No, he didn't get a small raise from the board, but he put himself into a position to give himself a honking raise whenever he wills it by simultaneously collecting his salary and his pension (which would be about 3/4 of his pay).

Huckelberry first began working for the county in 1974, and has been in the same CEO-level seat since 1993. Under Arizona state law, his pension would be at least 73.6% of the average of his last 36 or 60 months of pay, whichever is higher (and the 60-month figure would include all vacation and other leave paid out). Some quick napkin scribbles put that at about $220,000 yearly — at least.

So instead of the bump to $315,000 that he initially asked for, Huckelberry has positioned himself to be able to stay behind his desk and pull down $512,000.

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Who couldn’t have seen that coming? Supervisors: It seemed quiet when you docked Huckelberry's pay. Didn't it seem too quiet?

Tool for the top dogs

Double-dipping carries a real metaphoric message that the game is rigged. A top county government official taking his pension and a regular paycheck, too. One set of rules for the people at the top and another for the burger flipper, Realtor(tm) or engineer who pays his salary. He can bump up his earnings but the typical county worker won't get a raise because – y’know – times are tough.

Huckelberry didn’t invent this idea.

Former Tucson Police Department Chief Richard Miranda hung up his badge in 2007 to take a job as assistant city manager. He drew a salary and his pension. Then the City Council subsequently promoted him to city manager in 2011.

Former Flowing Wells School District Superintendent John Pedicone retired, started getting his pension, and subsequently took the post of superintendent of Tucson Unified School District, with a tidy salary there.

... but not just top dogs

Let's dispense with the notion that others don't or shouldn't do it.

According to one source I talked to, double dips happen all the time in the lower ranks among police officers. A Tucson Police Department patrol officer works her way up to detective and retires after 20 years of experience. She's getting too old for this.

Then she realizes there's still something to offer Oro Valley, Marana or the University of Arizona Police Department. She can take that experience to that new department.

All things considered, isn’t it better that the jurisdiction gets an experienced cop and maybe doesn’t treat every college beer party like the Third Battle of Fallujah. At the same time, if badassery is required, this experienced officer knows exactly how to provide it.

The move allows the new department to cash in on experience. Time on tool is important, no matter how little Generation Emoji regards it.

The officer is collecting a pension she paid into, at rates of up to 12 percent of her weekly paycheck. So it’s not like she's getting it for "free."

And, appearances aside, it doesn't cost the taxpayer more money — at least not much more. And it even might save a few bucks in some situations.

Say Huckelberry retires and does head down to Mexico to listen to Jimmy Buffet’s “Boat Drinks” on an infinite loop. The Board of Supervisors still needs a county administrator. The county still must cough up a six-figure salary. The taxpayer saves nary a dime.

Maybe the board could get a columnist to sit on Huckelberry’s desk and occasionally shout “Hey! What’s going on over there?!” and he’ll do it for $200,000 per year rather than Huckelberry’s $292,000 annual salary. The taxpayer has saved $92,000.

However, one of Huckelberry’s achievements is that he kept the county out of the kind of pension-system trouble plaguing the city. So he’s saved local taxpayers millions of dollars.

A guy like Pedicone did great work at Flowing Wells and looked like a brilliant hire for TUSD. Then that district did what it does to talent at the top. It chewed him up and spit him out.

Is it that big of a deal to folks in Flowing Wells that the pensioner took another job? The pension fund would be paying him regardless.

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A shaky exemption

So it’s all good, right?

Not necessarily. State law says no employee can receive pension payouts if they are employed in the same position they last held with a government. They can do the job. They just can’t get the pension.

Huckelberry’s deal would get around this restriction by installing him as “a contractor” and not an employee.

Man, is that a shaky excuse. Clearly the law intends to forbid such an arrangement. However, Arizona's legislators tend to be really, really bad at crafting laws. Too few legislative counsels have to entertain too many hair-brained legislative schemes to adequately craft bills.

So for all those conservative textualists out there who are pro-Legislature and anti-Huckelberry, this sucks for you.

But c’mon! C’mon, Chuck. You are gaming a loophole.

Huckelberry is what the Internal Revenue Service calls a “rehired annuitant” (there's a reason why we don’t put the IRS in charge of the English language). So he may be affected by Social Security taxes, depending on the applicability of Section 218 of the Social Security Act and how it corresponds to the Omnibus Budget Reconcilition acts of 1985 and 1990.

That’s between Huckelberry and the feds.

Hammer and tongs

Public employee pension plans are a lightning rod for public rage.

“How come if I don’t get a pension, they get a pension when I’m paying their salary out of my taxes?,” the argument usually goes.

Well, back in The Day, public servants were paid less than the private sector so the public sector needed incentives to recruit qualified employees. Since The Day, the private sector has set about with hammer and tong their employee benefit packages.

Wall Street must be freed from the brutal frugality of six-figure salaries, right?

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I tend to take a view that the private sector work force should do a better job looking out for their end rather than pulling the public sector down. 

If Tucson became a shanty town, what point would we prove to The Man?

So this is one of those columns where it’s damned interesting and vaguely disappointing that Huckelberry can get away with these kinds of games but we’re kind of mad about it just because we’re mad about it.

Huckelberry is going at it with snickering mockery of Arizona’s poorly crafted laws, which I know he so loves to do.

The Chuck State

I just can’t help think the county Board of Supervisors bought a future headache in exchange for the headache they avoided in refusing him the ill-timed raise request he suggested for himself.

Supervisors have long found Huckelberry annoying and indispensable. There is no Deep State at Pima County. There’s just the Chuck State. Win him over on a policy and it will get done. It’s a power they use and resent.

Pegging a raise to his handling of the COVID vaccine program might have been a smarter way to go.

So I tell new supervisors Matt Heinz, Adelita Grijalva and Rex Scott: If you are going to cross swords with Huckelberry, you gotta go to him. You can’t let him come to you. Even if you do, he’ll drop his brow, lift his eyes, speak softly and then you really gotta dig in firm.

Blake Morlock is an award-winning columnist who worked in daily journalism for nearly 20 years and is the former communications director for the Pima County Democratic Party. Now he’s telling you things that the Devil won’t.


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Paul Ingram/TucsonSentinel.com

Pima County Administrator Chuck Huckelberry, seen at a December county meeting, is in a position for the kind of 'double dip' that drives taxpayers crazy.

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