Daily Archives: July 23, 2009

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-