Shallow dip

Show of hands:  How many of you know somebody who served twenty years in the military and is collecting the pension s/he earned?

Now, how many of those military folk are earning a paycheck at another job, while collecting the military pension?

Question:  Is that a bad thing, or a good thing?

saltzman2 7.20.09If you’re WGCL, it’s a bad thing.  The TV station is in the throes of producing a six-part (and counting) series of reports on Fulton County employees “accused” of double-dipping.

“Double-dipping” means that the employees have worked a respectable career for the county, have earned retirement benefits, yet have returned to the payroll for “temporary” work.

Or as Wendy Saltzman put it in part one:  They’re paid “their lucrative county pension, and a second plush paycheck on top of that.”

Saltzman’s series focuses on the fact that Fulton County policy restricts double-dipping.  The restriction makes sense.  Some employees game the system, with the assistance of friendly managers who allow them to retire, collect benefits, then return to the payroll for cushy jobs.

Likewise, Saltzman has delivered a clean hit on the procedure violation.  “Temporary” employees with pensions are only supposed to work six months.  She found some who’d worked four years.

What’s mostly overlooked in the WGCL series is this inconvenient fact:  If those folks didn’t return to the payroll, somebody else probably would.  Maybe full-time, with benefits.  (As temporary employees, the double-dippers typically collect no additional benefits).

Wendy Saltzman with Gary Stiles

Wendy Saltzman with Gary Stiles

In part two, Fulton County police assistant chief Gary Stiles told Saltzman that he’s re-hiring retirees because he can’t get enough qualified people willing to work.  “Bring them to me.  We’ll hire them today,” Stiles tells Saltzman.

In part five of her series, Saltzman attended a pension board hearing.  There, a county manager pointed out that the re-hired retirees actually save the county $700,000 per year — because they don’t receive benefits.

Both of these explanations make perfect sense.  But WGCL aggressively and shamelessly backs the concept of “advocacy journalism.”  It’s a good audience-grabber:  Find wrongdoing, and bust chops on the story until somebody does something to fix it.  WGCL has all-but owned the scandalous Atlanta water bills story with this approach.

Yes, the county is violating its policy.  But “fixing” the problem won’t necessarily save taxpayers any money.  In fact, doing so could increase costs and arguably compromise public safety.

The problem is that it just sounds bad.  One employee pulling two government checks?  Your tax dollars? There’s gotta be something wrong with that — even if there really isn’t.

From WGCL's web site

From WGCL's web site

WGCL isn’t alone.  The AJC has done double-dipping stories for years.  But the AJC stories have typically gone deeper, catching double-dipping state workers who snooze on the payroll, collecting a second check from a friendly supervisor.

WGCL has made no allegation that these Fulton Co. employees aren’t earning their paychecks.  Instead, they’re merely violating policy.

WGCL has correctly exposed inconsistencies in Fulton County policy.  But to “accuse” employees of double-dipping implies they are wrongdoers when there’s nothing to suggest the employees are at fault for anything, except working past retirement age. 

This is a nuanced story, and Saltzman is capable of telling it.  She’s given “the other side” some due, but the “advocacy” drumbeat ain’t right for this story.   Grade:  B-

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Doug Richards is a reporter at WXIA-TV. This is his personal blog. WXIA-TV has nothing whatsoever to do with this blog, under any circumstances, in any form. For anything written herein, Doug accepts sole credit and full blame. Follow him on Twitter: @richardsdoug. All rights reserved. Thanks for visiting.

17 thoughts on “Shallow dip

  1. Steve

    This is typical of the in-your-face, poorly thought out style of journalism that exists at WGCL. From the top down, they are arrogant and self-serving.

    Reply
    1. Element

      With a comment like that, I’m guessing that you never saw any of these stories, so you’re willing to just just pile on, Steve!? Cheap and easy shots from the peanut gallery! Thata’ boy!

      The fact is, Fulton County’s policy clearly states that this is a violation. Clearly. And the assertion that, “If those folks didn’t return to the payroll, somebody else probably would”, well that’s kinda the point, I think. There are other people out there with NO income, while these people get two incomes? Come on.

      Reply
      1. GS

        Element:

        Rarely do I reply to comments I see on these types of Blogs, however your comment and the comments of others deserves a response.

        The CBS story was a poorly researched hatchet job. WSB (Jodie F. ) had a much more in depth and well thought out approach. WAGA came in late, but also looked at the whole story and wasn’t looking for a buzz word to grab headlines.

        First….Double Dipping is receiving compensation twice for the same job….clearly not what was happening, but sounds good to the uninformed. Second….the retired police officers EARNED every dime of their retirement (even paid into it) and were not GIVEN anything. The Reserve Officer Program saved the County millions of dollars over its 7 year life, and kept fulltime officers on the beats. Reserve Officers were paid only for the time worked with no benefits (saves about 50% of salary cost.)

        As far as your limited understanding of the complex Pension Plan:

        There was more than one issue involved. The media (Wendy S.) chose to sensationalize something without all the facts.
        The Plan is clear that Fulltime Employment results in the “suspension of pension benefits.” That issue was not a police department issue, as we had no retirees employed fulltime. The Sheriff’s Dept apparently had a couple of fulltime positions filled by retirees.

        The Plan allows for temporary or partime reemployment of retirees. The police department formed a Reserve Officer program in Oct. 2001 after the 9/11 attacks dramatically increased the demands on the department. The partime Reserve Officer PRogram was formed to meet what was then the current interpretation of the “temporary or contract” employment clause of the Plan. It was formed with consultation from the highest levels of the County administration. The Reserve Officer program has its own budget and took no jobs away from any seeking a position as a police officer. It was designed to free up on duty patrol officers to remain on patrol instead of performing time consuming administrative tasks as weel as prisoner transports etc. The Reserve Officer program was approved and voted on seven (7) times in the annual budget process.

        No one collected two “paychecks.” One check was earned with many years of service and sacrifice, the other for hour for hour service rendered.

        As far as those out there with “no income,”

        The above quote attributed to me is completely inaccurate.
        As I stated in my interview with Wendy S., 3 out of 100 police applicants are actually acceptable and hired (on average). As I told her, if YOU have someone desiring to be a police officer (or how about you Element?)bring them to me, if they are qualified and pass the background check etc. we will hire them! But even if we were at full staff we would still want the Reserve Officers. They do the jobs that take beat officers and detectives off the beats for long periods of time.

        Thanks for showing an interest in this issue. The service done by the media on this one will first COST the taxpayers alot money and some reduced service, but may ultimately result in an acceptable (and sensible) amendment to the existing pension. Many public safety pension plans across the country address this very issue in a much more sensible fashion with a program commonly referred to as a “DROP” plan.

        GS

        Reply
  2. Steve

    I did in fact see the stories and it is in fact a violation of policy, but the point that LAF makes is that it’s a cheap shot and IMHO, the whole tone of WGCL’s “investigative reporting” is offensive. WAGA is far more restrained in their approach and does a LOT more homework.

    Reply
    1. CB Hackworth

      Wendy, it is possible for a story (or in this case an avalanche of stories) to be factually correct and still fail to qualify as good journalism.

      The biggest problems with your series are
      (a) that it is a series at all (rather than a single report) and
      (b) it is overblown and sensationalized almost beyond belief.

      You didn’t find Jon Benet’s real killer, ok? Yes, you stumbled upon a technical violation — and, fine, ok, go ahead and ruin a few lives and give yourself a high five for being such a hero. If you keep doing pieces like this and find yourself able to celebrate them, I think you’ll find it harder and harder to look at yourself in the mirror as time passes.

      The viewing pubic is not as stupid at the local media assumes. Not the entire viewing public, anyway. Many, many folks see right through the “investigative” hype and it makes them dislike reporters more and more and more and more. Eventually, there will be some kind backlash — at the very least a diminishing pool of viewers, but perhaps even successful efforts to curtail the First Amendment because of how carelessly it is exercised.

      Sadly, this kind of hype has become the norm on local TV… so, don’t worry, there’s plenty of shame to go around.

      You’re not a bad apple spoiling the whole bunch. The whole bunch is spoiled, and occasionally there’s a good apple in there somewhere. But, god, who wants to dig for it?

      Reply
      1. Element

        Listen, I appreciate the dialog. Thats what this is all about. I won’t discount alternative viewpoints but I don’t think that holding public officials feet to the fire is bad journalism.

        And comparing apples to apples seems mute to the fact that we SHOULD be asking these questions. If one is done better than another, that should not equate into the ends.

        Reply
      2. newsmanatl

        Element,

        It’s one thing to hold the feet of public officials (although I’m not entirely sure that is the correct term to apply to people who merely work for the county, but let’s go with it) to the fire.

        Like I said, fine… burn them if it makes you feel good.

        Burning them night after night after night (without more to go on, or genuinely new developments) is the reportorial answer to Gitmo.

        And you can not tell me that any of this (by that I mean the multiple parts) is for sound journalistic reasons. It is for ratings. Plain and simple.

        Reply
  3. Dash Riptide

    The real story here is how Fulton County is willing to establish policies that defy economic sense. For present purposes a pension can be fairly viewed as back pay for services already rendered. Why should someone have to avoid an employment relationship with Fulton County in order to receive their contractual “back pay”? As long as qualified individuals who are not also retired Fulton County employees can compete for the same jobs for the same compensation (meaning no benefits), then I don’t see the problem here. The potential for non-competitive hiring is the only legitimate issue in this context. The policy is the policy, but it’s faux muckraking to portray what these employees have been doing as morally wrong. Double-dipping implies getting paid twice for the same day’s work. That ain’t happening here.

    Reply
  4. Jim

    When I first saw the teases, I thought it would actually be collecting the same pay twice for the same work. Sorry Wendy, no story here, stop beating them up, or at least give the other side some time.

    Reply
  5. rptrcub

    The Tough Questions (C) strike again! C’mon, Doug. You know the mouth breathing audience 46 is trying to steal from 2 are loving this more than the hard-on Adam Murphy gets from the Georgia Department of Revenue.

    Reply
  6. steve schwaid

    BTW,. for the record. The issue of double dipping was defined by the pension commission.

    There is a clear policy that as they say is to stop double dipping.

    It’s amazing to hear someone on this board say that a story has different significance because it’s more than one part. I guess I would call the additional stories as follow ups or different segments, but to each their own.

    Also, there are some clear indications that the double dippers in some cases were favorites of the their boss and there are legitimate questions about a chief jailer would receive 115k.

    Of course, some might say a news director might also be referred to as a chief jailer.

    Reply
  7. arky

    “Why should someone have to avoid an employment relationship with Fulton County in order to receive their contractual “back pay”?”

    Because it’s not back pay, it’s retirement. The same reason you can’t get full Social Security benefits when you’re working, even if you’re already at retirement age and have paid into the system. If you want to draw retirement AND another paycheck, just get a job that’s not on the same retirement system. My father and my father-in-law have both done so without whining about it because they understand the rules.

    “Sorry Wendy, no story here, stop beating them up, or at least give the other side some time.”

    Did you even read this article? The points which show the “other side” are actually taken directly from Wendy’s own stories, as Doug makes abundantly clear.

    Reply
    1. Dash Riptide

      “Because it’s not back pay, it’s retirement.”

      It’s a distinction without a difference. Fulton County has to pay it whether the recipient “retires” or not. From an economic analysis standpoint, it’s the same as back pay. Unlike Social Security, Fulton County doesn’t get to cut benefits based on the retiree’s income from sources other than Fulton County.

      “If you want to draw retirement AND another paycheck, just get a job that’s not on the same retirement system.”

      That’s the pragmatic solution for the retiree, but it’s a heaping bowlful of stupid for Fulton County to have to turn these folks away because of a prophylactic rule that forbids what is otherwise a win-win solution for retirees and taxpayers alike. I acknowledged the rules while criticizing them on economic grounds. Your response is essentially that “rules are rules.” Thanks for the insight.

      Reply
  8. Ben

    Actually, you can get full Social Security and still earn unlimited employment income if you are 65 or older. Under 65, SS benefits are reduced if you still earn employment income.

    Reply
  9. Snozz

    <>

    Both- bad that they feel they need to, good that they can… and irrelevant;
    that’s not really what the story was about, for some of us at least.

    Confusion in the public mind, i.e. mine, stems in part from the concept of pensions equaling retirement plans, and retirement equaling leaving an employer (gold watch, sheet cake, etc.). The idea that you reach an age and receive your pension while continuing to work for the same employer seems, well, wrong. Collecting a pension while continuing to be employed (like our Armed Forces buddy)? No worries. Retiring Friday and back on the time sheet collecting your pension on Monday? Er…

    Reply
    1. Dash Riptide

      Right, because Joe Sixpack is too unsophisticated to grasp the difference between economic substance and the superficiality of nomenclature. I will say, however, that there probably is a sound basis for establishing a prophylactic rule forbidding full-time contract work by “higher ups” in county government. The considerable temptation for self-dealing among those who have a place at the table can certainly result in administrative bloat. But that still wouldn’t be “double-dipping.” Receiving “money for nothing” is scandalous regardless of whether the recipient is also receiving retirement benefits.

      Reply

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