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Revere city council makes the most of retirement

Pensions brim with rich rewards

By Sean P. Murphy
Globe Staff / March 29, 2009
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REVERE - A group of elected officials in this working-class city, which struggles daily to provide services under the threat of severe budget cuts, is reaping some extraordinary rewards for public service.

Through deft exploitation of state laws and local ordinances, a majority of Revere's 11 part-time city councilors are collecting full city pensions while remaining on the city payroll and receiving up to $25,000 a year in council compensation, according to a Globe review of public records.

One councilor began collecting his city pension without retiring. Two others left the council, began collecting their retirement benefits, and returned to the council with no interruption or reduction of their pensions. Some have tacked extra years onto pensions with just a few days' work. They also have used annual bonuses that accumulate for multiple years of service, called "longevity pay," to pad their pensions and council salaries simultaneously.

In many ways, the Revere council provides a case study in the myriad tactics employed by some public officials in Massachusetts to maximize retirement benefits. But it also is an extreme case, according to the Globe review. The use of so many different retirement provisions - by retirees still on a public payroll - is rare if not unique, compensation specialists said.

Fred Foulkes, a Boston University professor and director of the university's Human Policy Institute, said Revere city councilors may have seized every available advantage in state and local rules to increase their income.

"There are a lot of these quirks around to take advantage of," he said. "The average citizen doesn't know about things like this."

The pensions are an example of the kind of nest-feathering that has infuriated the public and recently prompted Governor Deval Patrick and some lawmakers to call for an overhaul of the pension system.

The Globe has published stories about town moderators and a library trustee who counted their volunteer service toward pensions, and public officials who began collecting early, enhanced pensions after they were fired from state government.

Revere officials say they are doing nothing improper, and that the provisions they have used to increase their pensions are part of state and local codes.

"I take what is given to me - that's my stand on it," said Councilor George V. Colella, a former Revere mayor.

Seven of the 11 Revere councilors receive pensions, ranging up to $57,000 a year. In addition, they receive base city council pay of $14,650, plus automatic expense stipends of $7,200 (recently reduced by 20 percent, in a nod to the budget crisis), plus the accumulating bonuses for years worked, called longevity bonuses.

The combined take for some councilors is more than $85,000 a year, in a city of 55,000 people where the median income hovers around $45,000 annually. By comparison, Malden, with about the same population and demographics, pays councilors $17,500. Only one Malden councilor receives a city pension.

Some of the Revere councilors built up pensions while serving as full-time city employees; others earned pensions based largely on serving as council and School Committee members. Two of the retirees served the city as both mayor and councilor; one as only a councilor; one as a firefighter; one as a police officer; and one served in the state's employment training department.

"Revere may be unique in electing so many retirees to the city council," said Anthony T. Zambuto, one of the few councilors who does not receive a public pension.

Councilor Arthur Guinasso, for example, retired as a councilor in 2002 at age 62, began receiving a $10,000 annual pension, and then returned to the council two years later, collecting both his pension and the councilor compensation package, which together equals a combined $31,700. Guinasso did not return telephone calls.

Councilor Robert J. Haas Jr. "retired" from his career as a mayor and councilor in 2005 at age 62, and just kept going, never breaking his service on the council. The only change for Haas was that he began drawing his $47,500 pension on top of his councilor's pay and expenses of about $25,000.

These moves are legal because city councilors and other elected officials in Massachusetts are exempt from the restrictions and financial penalties the law imposes on most government retirees who want to continuing working and drawing paychecks beyond their retirement. The law imposes no such restrictions on retirees who hold elected office.

The state rules also allow City Council members to count their part-time, elected jobs as full years of pension credit. The council usually meets three times a month, for as long as five hours per session. On average, that is about four hours a week throughout the year. They also spend various amounts of time on constituent work.

Councilors bristled at the suggestion they are taking advantage of the system.

"Everybody says it's part-time work," said Ira Novoselsky, a councilor who combined state employment and a stint on the city planning board to retire at age 55 with an annual pension of about $30,000, on top of his council compensation of more than $26,500. "But you don't get calls at two o'clock in the morning from [angry] constituents."

Revere City Council members have also used the so-called one-day rule to boost their pensions, in a fashion similar to other officials around the state. It allows public officials to collect a full year of credit toward a pension for as little as one day of work in a calendar year.

The rule was devised by the state Legislature, whose departing members typically gain an extra year of credit when they remain in office for a few days in January while awaiting the swearing-in of their successors.

In Revere, the terms of mayor, councilors, and School Committee members also extend into the first week of January. (Two out of six School Committee members in Revere also receive city pensions, plus pay and health benefits.)

Haas took advantage of the one-day rule in 2005, boosting his eventual pension by about $1,500 a year for life by serving two days as a councilor in January.

Colella used it three times in his long political career, twice when leaving office as mayor and once when leaving office as councilor, allowing him to ring up an extra $5,000 in his annual pension for 10 days' work - for life. Since he began collecting a pension 17 years ago, the one-day rule in Colella's case has cost the city about $85,000.

Colella said the one-day rule was spawned by the Legislature.

"I had nothing to do with it," he said.

But another key benefit was established by the council. The council voted in 2000 to boost members' pay - and their eventual pensions - by giving themselves automatic annual longevity bonuses based on the length of their public employment. Longevity pay is practically unheard of for city councilors and other elected officials in surrounding municipalities, according to a survey of those cities.

The Revere city council also then further enhanced the benefits of longevity. Councilors voted, in the same year, to allow longevity payments they receive to be used in calculating their pensions. Longevity bonuses are awarded at $500 a year for the first nine years of service, and then boosted by $200 for every year after that, up to a maximum of $6,300.

Haas, for example, receives about $2,500 a year of his $47,500 annual pension in recognition for the longevity he amassed as a councilor and mayor in the 1980s and 1990s. And he is using those same years a second time to collect $3,700 a year in longevity pay as a councilor.

Haas said he did not realize councilors were getting the advantages of longevity bonuses twice, until it was pointed out by the Globe.

"I think we have to address it," he said. "It may be a small amount in dollars, but it's symbolic. If it is wrong, we will do something about it."

Sean P. Murphy can be reached at smurphy@globe.com.