Pension disclosure possible

Shocked by top state pensions, Senate leaders talk of making info public.

Staff WriterJune 15, 2010 

State lawmakers say the pension system needs serious review after a former director of a regional mental health center became the state's top public pensioner despite running his agency into the ground.

Last year, Charles R. Franklin Jr., 68, of Greenville became the recipient of the largest pension among state and local government employees at $211,373 annually. He started collecting his retirement checks just as the state Department of Health and Human Services took over his agency, the Albemarle Mental Health Center in northeastern North Carolina, for failing to meet basic standards of service.

Legislative leaders said they were shocked to find he collects the state's biggest pension, which appears to be the result of a special deal he worked out with the center's board in 2005. It paid him a combined $608,000 in salary and benefits over two years.

"We've got judges, we've got doctors, we've got people who were chancellors and a president of the university system, and they are making less than that fellow down in Albemarle," said Senate Majority Leader Martin Nesbitt, an Asheville Democrat. "There's something wrong with that. The problem is, how do you fix it?"

Questions have also been raised about the fifth-highest pensioner, Billy Williams, the recently retired Alcoholic Beverage Control administrator in New Hanover County. His salaries, considered too far above the norm, have fueled a $194,858 annual pension.

Some ideas lawmakers kicked around on Monday included a cap on pensions, changing how they are calculated, or setting limits on how much boards and commissions can pay their directors.

Nesbitt and others said it's unlikely they could delve into the intricacies of the pension system this session, but he said lawmakers could lift the secrecy involved in pension calculations.

He said he and other Senate leaders plan to roll out an omnibus ethics bill next week that would make salary histories public. That information would help the public understand how pensions are calculated.

Most state and local pensions are determined using a formula that includes the average of the highest four consecutive years' pay plus an employee's length of service. But officials at the state treasurer's office would not release that information, or tell what public jobs the retirees had held, saying that was not public under the state's personnel law.

A recent series in The News & Observer, "Keeping Secrets," found that the personnel law is among the most secretive in the nation, keeping nearly everything except current salaries and positions from being public.

Senate Democratic and Republican leaders and Gov. Beverly Perdue, a New Bern Democrat, have said they want to fix the personnel law to make more information public. House Speaker Joe Hackney, an Orange County Democrat, has not indicated where he stands on the issue, while House Minority Leader Paul Stam said recently he saw little need for making salary and employment histories public.

But House Republican Whip Thom Tillis of Mecklenburg County said a sizable majority of House Republicans would support opening up the personnel information.

"It's absurd to think that the taxpayers of North Carolina are on the hook for that kind of money and they don't have the access to learn how it got there," Tillis said of Franklin's pension.

Tillis also said he wants the state auditor to look at how Franklin and Williams garnered their pensions and whether lawmakers have a legal means for trying to reduce them.

dan.kane@newsobserver.com or 919-829-4861

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