If it weren’t for a special state program, Glens Falls would’ve been up a creek after it abruptly took back control of the city’s water and sewer systems.
The city had privatized the systems and contracted the work out to EarthTech. After a Department of Labor investigation into wage abuse, the city ended the contract. But it no longer had any employees who knew how the water system and treatment plant worked.
It takes years to train people to handle all of the problems that can crop up in hundreds of miles of pipes buried underground and a treatment plant that handles sewage 24 hours a day.
Naturally, the city wanted to rehire key personnel, who had retired when the city switched to EarthTech. But retirees are paid a state pension. If they were hired back by the city, taxpayers would be paying twice for each of them.
No public employer is supposed to hire retirees. Under Civil Service Law, they must first try to find “qualified, nonretired workers.”
If they can’t, they can apply for what is known as the Section 211 waiver. It allows public sector retirees to return to work and receive full pay while continuing to collect their pensions.
But they have to show why the person in question is “absolutely needed.”
The system has been criticized.
“The 211 waiver is essentially an incentive for retirees to go back to work and earn a full pension and a full salary,” said Empire Center Executive Director Tim Hoefer.
Hoefer said if people are going back to work, they should put their pension on hold. When they are ready to retire, they can restart it.
“If you’re going to work, work. If you’re going to retire, retire.”
While there is a savings to employers because they do not have to pay for the retired workers’ health insurance or pay into the pension system, the workers are collecting their pension, at taxpayer cost.
“That’s not an overall savings for the taxpayers,” he said.
School officials disagree, saying that each administrator who is a state system retiree saves the district about $50,000, a direct savings to local taxpayers.
And although the state Comptroller’s Office says employers must prove they had no choice but to hire a retiree, the waiver applications don’t show those arguments.
“We don’t get a good sense of what the entity has done to fill the position without filling the position with a 211 waiver,” Hoefer said, about the waiver forms.
The Empire Center posts the waivers on its SeeThroughNY.net website, after filing Freedom of Information Law requests to obtain the waiver applications from the handful of state agencies that are allowed to grant them.
A total of 849 waivers were granted to public employees as of July 1, 2016, according to the Empire Center, a fiscally conservative think tank. Forty-three waivers were approved for school districts outside of New York City and 249 were approved for local governments. That was down from the 861 waivers granted in July 1, 2015.
A decade ago, the state tried to reform the retirement system. Workers were no longer allowed to go back to work for their most recent employer, which was the most common way in which the system was abused. Now, workers must wait a year before returning to their last employer, and they can’t make more than the difference between their pension and their salary at the time they retired.
Also, the state is now considered a single employer — so retirees can’t simply get a job with a different department. But every school district is considered a separate employer. The waivers are most noticeable there, as retirees return to be interim superintendents at district after district.
After the reform, waiver applications decreased by about half, according to the Civil Service commissioner. But Hoefer, and others, are suspicious that some of the remaining jobs for which waivers are granted could have been filled by non-retirees. Hoefer recalled a pattern in the last few years of SUNY campuses hiring retirees for security administration positions.
“They were hiring on a waiver basis without having even interviewed employees that were qualified to do the position,” he said.
Sometimes, however, the waiver seems to be a no-brainer. Glens Falls didn’t have trouble proving its need in 2006, when the city found itself trying to re-staff its Water and Sewer Department. It hired back five retirees, including Floyd Smith. Others included an experienced wastewater treatment plant operator and an accountant who helped them figure out how much to charge city users for the service.
Most of them have retired again. The only one left on the payroll is Smith, who was a young man when he started working for EarthTech. Now he has passed retirement age, but he’s working as the department’s lead mechanic while also collecting a pension.
Smith is paid $37,086 plus an annual pension of $7,484.
“He had a deep knowledge of the equipment onsite, how to repair it, how to keep it running,” said City Engineer Steve Gurzler.
Last week, Smith was replacing a nearly 30-year-old chain at the plant. He’s the only one working there who remembers installing it in the first place.
He taught two younger men the job, hoping they will remember decades from now when it’s their turn to replace it. The city made the right decision to pay him and another retiree to return, he said.
“We were experienced,” he said. “Even me being here almost 30 years now, there’s instances pop up I’ve never seen before.”
While he has been kept on as an experienced leader in the department, school officials rely on retirement waivers, because they say they have difficulty finding qualified people for interim positions.
“It’s hard enough finding full-time folks for some of those positions,” BOCES District Superintendent James Dexter said.
The pool of available administrators is thin, as Dexter said that people are not going into school administration. Veteran teachers may not want to leave the classroom for a job that only pays a little bit more but requires a lot more of a time commitment. In addition, teachers have to pay for additional schooling to earn administrative certification.
It’s a misconception that retirees are increasing their pensions by continuing to work, Dexter said.
“It does not change their final average salary. It does not change their pension amount. It does not in any way affect their pension,” he said.
The waivers allow districts to hire an experienced administrator on short notice.
“They know they’re getting somebody who’s experienced, who’s available quickly,” said Mark Doody, who retired as Hudson Falls superintendent of schools on June 30, 2015, but is currently on his fourth interim stint, serving as principal for grades 6 through 12 at Fort Edward.
Doody said, after his retirement, he was quickly sought after to fill an interim principal position at Whitehall High School when the principal resigned because of a controversy regarding state testing.
Other school officials retire for only days — or minutes — before picking up interim work. Jeffery Ziegler in October 2015 announced his plan to step down as superintendent for the Fort Edward district effective June 30, 2016.
Before his retirement even officially began, he was hired on a waiver in May 2016 as director of curriculum, instruction and professional development for the Schuylerville district at a salary of $75,000. Last July, Ziegler signed on for another year at the same salary in a slightly different job title — assistant director of special education, federal grants and pupil services. He received Section 211 waivers both times.
Lyn Derway also had a quick turnaround from retirement to interim work. When she called to check the references for her replacement, that school district offered to hire her on a waiver.
“Obviously, he was concerned about having the position vacant, so I offered to help out,” she said.
She became Hadley-Luzerne’s interim business administrator — her replacement’s former job — on Sept. 4, after retiring on Sept 1 as assistant superintendent for business at the Brunswick-Brittonkill district in Rensselaer County.
Derway said her husband was not ready to retire and she did not want to give up working entirely after 40 years in education to spend time “alphabetizing my spice cabinet.”
Now, she only has to work two or three days a week, so she can spend time with her new grandchild, has a shorter commute and gets to spend time in a smaller district. She has offered to mentor the new business administrator, whom the district hopes to have on board in November.
Once people turn 65, they no longer need a waiver. That is the case with 70-year-old James Polunci of South Glens Falls, who has kept very busy since retiring in 2003 from the Edmeston school district in Otsego County. He is currently the interim principal for Granville High School — his 16th fill-in stint.
“I did my first one the day after I retired,” he said.
Among Polunci’s interim positions have been as principal in Stillwater; Lake George; Bolton; Queensbury; Hudson Falls, where his son Kevin is the director of business services; and as superintendent for the Schroon Lake district. The length of tenure has ranged from a month to 13 months.
Polunci said he keeps doing it because of his need to be around people. He thoroughly enjoys working with kids, adults and teachers.
“Golf just didn’t do it for me,” he said. “The other thing, it keeps my mind sharp.”
Polunci said the districts save a lot of money, typically around $50,000 a year, because they do not have to pay health insurance or retirement benefits.
And the phone does not stop ringing for Polunci.
“I used to get four or five job offers a year,” he said.
Polunci said he prefers the challenge of being the principal.
“There’s more going on. There’s more direct contact with the students and staff. I like the action,” he said. “I like being busy. I like solving problems.”
Polunci said he believes he has a few more interim stints in him.
“It depends on how much gas I have in my tank,” he said.