Steven Barry says he was unaware of the retirement plan he voted on in 2016

An Escambia County Commissioner wants the county to pay him and other high-ranking county officials for lost pension income because he says the county did not inform him well enough about the pension program even though he voted to renew that program in 2016.

Since 1997, Escambia County has offered its senior officials a 401 (a) retirement plan that offers contribution rates at the same rate as the Florida Retirement System, but since the FRS deducts overheads from those contributions, the 401 (a) is actually much more lucrative.

Commissioner Steven Barry claims he was not informed of the plan when he was first elected in 2012 and only found out about it in 2019. He proposes an “arrangement” that would allow him, as well as other commissioners and senior employees, to receive essentially back payment for the lost revenue from not participating in the plan.

District Attorneys Alison Rogers and Barry went before the Florida Ethics Committee in March to seek approval for the settlement idea. The ethics committee gave its approval because it affected a “class” of county employees and those employees, including the commissioners, were not adequately informed about the program.

According to Roger’s written report submitted to the ethics committee, Barry said he did not find out about the program until his second term. He attempted to join the program, but Florida Retirement System rules only allow one elected official to leave the FRS program and join a retirement program during the first six months of his or her tenure.

He successfully joined her after winning his third term in 2020, as did Commissioner Lumon May, according to district documents.

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However, county documents show that Barry, who is a certified financial planner, knew of the existence of the program at least during his first term on March 3, 2016 when he made a motion that approved 21 items on the agenda for approval. Second on the list was a new agreement with the company that manages the 401 (a) program for the county.

Barry did not respond to the News Journal’s request for comment on Tuesday.

“If it is not explained what it is and how it is available to you, I don’t think it would be very clear,” said Rogers when he was informed of the 2016 vote. “But of course you would have to ask the Commissioner to answer that particular question.”

The subject of the ethics hearing in March became a controversy within the county government when a member of the public anonymously asked for documents related to a request to the ethics committee. An unknown county employee tried to find out who made the request by finding the anonymous requester’s IP address with his own anonymous public record request.

IP addresses are unique to each Internet device and can be used to determine the geographic location of that device and, in some cases, the identity of the user.

District administrator Janice Gilley and Rogers disagree on the issue, with Rogers saying the IP address is clearly a public record and Gilley saying the district’s website that offers anonymous record requests does not disclose that IP addresses are public when someone interacts online with the county.

In this specific case, the email was sent by a service that offers its users anonymity. The IP address was actually already publicly known as it was embedded in the original emails and dates back to the Netherlands, the News Journal confirmed on Friday after receiving the original email files.

District employees at the highest level can either participate in the Florida Retirement System or enroll in the retirement program. The two pension programs have the same employer contribution rates, but the FRS pays a significant portion of that contribution as an overhead, while the county pension program does not.

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In the FRS program, an elected civil servant pays 3% of his income into his retirement account while the county contributes 49.18%, but only 8.34% of that county contribution ends up on the civil servant account as FRS pays the rest as overhead costs.

In the retirement program, an elected official still pays 3%, but the entire 49.18% of the county goes to the account.

The numbers can add up quickly.

Rogers said Barry brought her the 2019 edition of the retirement plan shortly after the News Journal published a story about the net worth of all 32 locally elected officials required to file financial disclosures with the state. She said after specifically looking at Commissioner Robert Bender’s disclosure, it became clear that the 401 (a) retirement plan was an option for Barry and other commissioners.

Bender had only been in office for a little over half a year at the time, but had accumulated more than $ 24,000 in his retirement account.

Escambia county commissioner Steven Barry says he was not notified of the county's 401 (a) retirement plan until 2019 and is looking for one

Bender told the News Journal Tuesday that when he was elected in 2018, he received papers from the county informing him the plan existed, but it took nearly five months of research and multiple calls to the FRS system before he got the Retirement plan figured out was the better option.

Since the county took part in the program in 1997, Bender was only the second commissioner to take part after former Commissioner Marie Young.

Rogers’ office compiled a list of participants in the county’s 401 (a) program since its inception and found that half of them have been hired since Bender’s election in 2018.

“There has been a flow of information about the program lately,” said Rogers. “But that left a large group of classic cars in the lurch, people who have been here a lot longer, who apparently came at a time when there was really no flow of information.”

Rogers, who is eligible for the retirement program, has advised the Commission that it will not enter into any settlement if it is approved in order to avoid any conflict of interest.

Bender said he would wait until the Escambia County Commission’s scheduled discussion on the matter on Thursday before addressing the issue.

Commissioner Jeff Bergosh, who has had a retirement plan through the FRS since serving on the Escambia County School Board, said he was happy with his current plan but saw why the 401 (a) program would be attractive to someone who is inactive is in the FRS.

Bergosh said he couldn’t remember the plans he’d been told about when he came to the county in 2016.

“If it’s true they weren’t told, then I think it’s only fair to make them whole,” Bergosh said.

Commissioner Doug Underhill said he had ideological opposition to politicians who are demanding any kind of retirement for their elected offices. He said he didn’t know why Barry shouldn’t find out about the plan.

“After seeing what Commissioner Barry told the Ethics Committee, he may not know about it,” Underhill said. “But if he doesn’t know 401 (a), what the hell was he voting on when he renewed this contract?”

Jim Little can be reached at jwlittle@pnj.com and 850-208-9827.

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