Alderman Peter Mortimer explains retirement
By Jessica Sacco / email@example.com
Posted Oct. 24, 2014 @ 8:46 am
An alderman’s unusual move to hold on to state health care benefits left some in Melrose questioning the decision, but both state and city officials say the practice is entirely permissible.
Ward 6 Alderman Peter Mortimer, who will enter his 14th year in the position next month, officially retired from his previous term of service to ensure he’d hold onto his healthcare benefits for the rest of his life.
But because he was then re-elected, he is now collecting his pension and related retirement benefits while actually remaining on the board.
Massachusetts law allows so-called “group one” employees (hired prior to April 2, 2012) to retire once they reach the age of 55 and have at least 10 years of service. Group one includes public workers such as aldermen.
In February 2013, Gov. Deval Patrick filed “An Act Providing Retiree Healthcare Benefits Reform.” The bill would increase the minimum age of retirement eligibility from 55 to 60 for the group one workforce and increase the years of service from 10 to 20.
“That’s not fair, changing the rules in the middle of the game,” Mortimer told the Free Press. “I could get unelected, or die, or become disabled before I reached that as an alderman. I couldn’t take a chance.”
To ensure he would be able to receive health insurance for himself and his family going forward, Mortimer knew he had to take action.
Mortimer currently contributes $2,612 a year for his family-plan health insurance through Melrose’s Group Insurance Commission. The city pays $17,479.
The then-57-year-old applied to retire with the city in December 2013, at the end of his sixth term. Residents had re-elected Mortimer to his next term in the November election, which would begin in January 2014. From there, his request was sent the state’s Public Employee Retirement Administration Commission, which approves all retirements for public employees.
With the go-ahead from PERAC, the Melrose Retirement Board approved Mortimer’s application on June 18 during its monthly meeting. His retirement, however, officially began in December (and he was paid retroactively).
The governor’s legislation was given to the Joint Committee on Public Service later that year, where it was then sent to study in September, essentially killing the issue for the time being.
Looking into the legality
Normally, when employees retire from a position in the private sector they are not permitted to return to the same job, doing the same work and receive their pension benefits, explained John Parsons, general counsel for PERAC.
“The elected officials, they have an exception in the law that allows you to collect a pension after you retire,” Parsons added. “Any individual who retires and is then elected to office, is allowed to earn whatever salary that office pays. It could be ... for a local alderman or it could be a statewide office.”
This means Mortimer can earn his $5,000 annual stipend for his alderman duties and his pension from the same position. He receives $937.80 from his yearly retirement allowance and will continue to do so until he and his wife die.
Because he’s now retired, Mortimer will no longer pay into the pension system throughout his remaining years serving as alderman. He will keep paying annually for his family’s health insurance, for which he and his spouse are also vested for life.
There are, however, several stipulations to the retirement law. The 2011 pension reform requires elected officials to wait a year between retirement and re-election, or they will be subjected to an earnings limitation.
“You can’t make more than what your salary is with the pension,” said Adam Travinski, executive director of the Melrose retirement board. “He can receive his salary, which is $5,000, minus his pensionable income in the first year of being retired.”
After one year, the restriction expires. In January, Mortimer will begin receiving his full salary, plus $78.15 a month from his pension.
He said he will not accept his salary and his pension at the same time, and is setting up an account for his pension money to be donated to a charitable organization until he no longer works for the city.
“I would never take both,” Mortimer said. “That’s not the purpose of this. The purpose of this is to prevent something that I’ve already earned being taken away from my family.”
The state law also limits Mortimer to working no more than 960 hours a year as an alderman, but does allow him to make up to an additional $15,000 in that role, along with any other money he brings in as a self-employed attorney.
No other members of the Board of Aldermen with 10 years of service or more are retired.
However, Travinski said people often retire from one position to start working at another or similar profession.
“In the state of Massachusetts, it’s common,” he said. “A lot of people go back to work, but they have to stay under these restrictions.”
Despite the legitimacy of the alderman’s actions, some residents questioned his judgment, accusing him of taking advantage of the system.
Mortimer said he knows his supporters understand his choice and that he personally has received no pushback from Melrosians.
“People who know me, people who vote for me, said what I did is completely reasonable,” he added. “There may be a handful of people out there who object, [but] everyone who’s talked to me, when they understand what the situation was, said, ‘I would have done the same thing.’”
Some residents have also been particularly vocal about their aversion toward aldermen receiving health insurance through the city, especially when it comes to lifetime vestment.
“That really has nothing to do with this,” Mortimer rebutted. “If they want to go forward and make future aldermen not have health insurance, that’s besides the point.”