Cobb’s 22 Superior and State Court judges get some of the most generous retirement benefits the county offers — and don’t pay a penny for them.
While other county employees pay into the pension plan over the duration of their employment, these judges reap the retirement harvest without having to sow any seeds.
The debate over Cobb’s pension anomaly has resurfaced following a snafu that put a spotlight on the judges’ pay and forced the Cobb commission to rescind an “illegal” pay increase granted to the Superior Court judges last month.
Superior Court judge pay comes from a combination of a state salary that is further enhanced by a county supplement meant to compensate for the higher caseloads and higher cost of living in places such as Cobb. The county also supplements the judges’ state-funded retirement benefits, to the tune of 4% of their $75,000 county salary supplement multiplied by the number of their years of service.
The benefit vests after 10 years of service and is capped at 16, meaning Superior Court judges will draw between $30,000 and $48,000 per year from the county pension fund, despite the fact that they are already members of a separate, state-funded pension plan: the Georgia Judicial Retirement System.
In 2016, the Board of Commissioners amended the pension plan to grant the same benefit structure to State Court judges, who are county employees.
The formula that determines other employees’ benefits is less generous. They draw no more than 2.5% of their final salary, multiplied by the number of their years of service. But as much as 8% of their paycheck goes toward funding it.
The arrangement has long frustrated some, including Steve Gaynor, president of the Cobb County F.O.P. Kermit C. Sanders Lodge #13, which represents more than 700 members of law enforcement.
“It’s kind of like double dipping. For the very same job you’re working, you’re getting paid twice,” he said, referring to the Superior Court judges’ receiving two pension checks in retirement.
Tony Hagler, the county’s HR director, said he did not know of other counties in which Superior and State court judges aren’t required to pay into the pension fund or have a different benefit multiplier than other county employees.
Donna Williams, the director of finance in Augusta — which is both a city and a county — said every employee in its pension plan has the same benefit multiplier, although there are different “classes” of employees, some of whom can retire earlier than others or whose benefits vest more quickly.
Cobb Superior Court Administrator Tom Charron did not return calls by press time.
The supplement dates to 1998. A new law merged several state retirement plans to form the Georgia Judicial Retirement System. The law, which went into effect July 1 of that year, gave the Board of Commissioners permission to supplement the judges’ retirement benefits, just as the county does with regards to their salaries.
The Cobb Board of Commissioners wasted no time. On Aug. 25, they amended the pension plan to provide for the judges’ supplement.
The idea was to “give them a pension on their total salary versus their only getting a pension on their state salary,” Hagler said.
Although Gaynor takes umbrage with the judges’ more generous benefit multiplier, Hagler said it simply reflects the structure of their state pension.
“The state pension that they receive is what’s spelled out in that amendment,” he said. “All this wording is from what they did to mirror the state plan.”
Matt Babcock, a former county firefighter who became a self-taught pension expert and served as an unofficial liaison between the pension board and the firefighters, said the generous benefits are particularly troubling given past talk of pension cuts.
West Cobb Commissioner Keli Gambrill agreed.
“I understand the FOP and the public safety frustration, because they’re contributing and there are concerns the pension is not going to be there when they retire,” she said.
But Chairman Mike Boyce, pointing to the pension’s triple-A bond rating, insists there are no cuts on the horizon.
Boyce said rating agencies had given the pension a negative outlook in the fall of 2018. But it was removed this spring, something he called “pretty remarkable” and attributed to a millage increase he was able to pass and a consequent increase in the county’s pension contributions.
Some 4,000 current and former county employees are enrolled in the pension plan, according to Hagler. State Court judges, of which there are 12, were added to the pension in a 2017 amendment, the point of which was “basically ... to provide the same that had been approved for Superior Court judges,” Hagler said. Unlike Superior Court judges, they are considered county employees and are not paid by the state.
“Having a handful of judges on the pension is not going to have a significant effect on the funding level of the pension,” acknowledged Babcock. “But I think it’s a slap in the face and it shows the complete lack of respect for the thousands of current employees and retirees who are making mandatory contributions deducted out of their check for decades and they’re relying on this pension when they retire.”