Weber Co. politicians use rules to advantage in gaining retirement benefits

Thursday , May 10, 2018 - 5:00 AM8 comments

A Weber County politician’s 2017 retirement package has drawn scrutiny this spring amid infighting at the Republican convention.

Two-term Sheriff Terry Thompson fielded questions about the retirement of Matthew Bell, a former sheriff’s deputy who worked for him and who was running to replace him as sheriff.

Meanwhile, Kevin Burns, another deputy — still in the running for sheriff — was almost fired by Thompson but negotiated a full county retirement package.

Public records obtained by the Standard-Examiner shed light on how both retirement packages came about.

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Bell had put in 16 ½ years as a sheriff’s deputy in 2012 when he won a four-year term on the county commission. He resigned from the commission on Dec. 29, 2016. The next day, Thompson hired him back as a deputy, and Bell then retired Jan. 3, 2017.

That gave Bell 20 ½ years of public employment, and he qualified for the higher public safety benefits because he retired from a law enforcement agency.

Had he not worked the extra few days back in the sheriff’s office, Bell would have had to settle for the standard public employee retirement. And he would not have been able to collect any of that until he turned 60. Bell is 57.

He also would not have received full public employee retirement benefits, because those are not granted until 30 years of service.

“The statute says that your retirement terms are based on the system in which you last retired,” said Brian Holland, spokesman for the Utah Retirement System.

“If you were employed in more than one URS retirement plan and the service is not concurrent, you may combine your service credits to determine your eligibility to retire from the system you are in at the time of your retirement,” Holland said.

County personnel records show Bell was paid $58.88 an hour when he left the commission and $23.23 an hour upon retirement from the sheriff’s office.


UTAH PUBLIC SAFETY EMPLOYEE RETIREMENT

Formula: 20 years of service x 2.5 percent x average three highest years salary.

Example: Average salary, $40,000, benefit $24,000 a year or $2,000 a month.

Source: Utah Retirement System, Tier 1 Public Safety Retirement System 


On the eve of the April 14 Weber County Republican Convention, Commissioner Kerry Gibson, who is not seeking re-election, sent an email to delegates complaining of actions involving Thompson, Bell and Commissioner James Ebert.

Gibson showed delegates an email he sent Thompson on Jan. 2, 2017, questioning the sheriff’s hiring of Bell to secure Bell’s more favorable retirement.

“It seems like the move is calculated on Matt’s part to manipulate the retirement system to his benefit,” Gibson’s email said. “This may be legal, but I can’t imagine that it would look like an ethical move to our constituents, as I feel it is a special type of deal that others would not be entitled to.”

At the time, Gibson was clashing with Ebert and Bell on budget and other matters, and apparently little had changed by the time of this year’s convention.

Ebert, a former police officer, is running for re-election to the commission, while Bell was vying for the nomination for sheriff against Burns and several other candidates.

Gibson said in his email to delegates, “I was very disappointed that county funds which fund the retirement system could be used to enrich a county commissioner, through the manipulation of the Utah Retirement System.”

Bell, who was knocked out of the running at the convention, said Tuesday he believed Gibson and Toby Mileski, a former Pleasant View mayor, made a public issue of his retirement to damage his chances of becoming sheriff.

Mileski had obtained Bell’s employment record from the county with a public records request and shared it with Gibson and delegates. Mileski’s complaints made waves at the convention, drawing heated responses from Thompson and Ebert.

“Everything was done above board,” Bell said of his retirement.

He said the Utah Retirement System had told him that if he maintained his law enforcement certification while serving on the commission, he could then return to law enforcement and retire with full public safety benefits.

The remaining sheriff’s candidates are Burns, sheriff’s Sgt. David MacInnes and Perry Police Chief Ryan Arbon.

Bell said he is supporting Arbon in the June 26 primary election.

“We need somebody new in that sheriff’s office,” Bell said.

SHERIFF DEFENDS BELL ARRANGEMENT

In an interview Tuesday, Thompson objected to Gibson’s and Mileski’s criticisms of Bell’s retirement.

“As far as I’m concerned that’s not their business, and frankly it isn’t mine, either,” Thompson said.

He said the Utah Retirement System has “very structured parameters and guidelines” that an employee consults when planning a retirement.

“That’s none of my business or Kerry Gibson’s,” Thompson said.

Thompson said Bell told him he needed to work a few more days for the sheriff’s office to secure his retirement.

The sheriff said he was “OK with doing my part to assist him in taking advantage of the retirement that he’s earned.”

Thompson said he had never been asked to make a similar move for a retiring deputy, but he would consider it. He said it did not matter whether it was Bell or someone else.

He said Gibson told him in January 2017 that Bell’s retirement was an example of “the good ol’ boy system of Weber County.”

A short time later, Thompson said he pointed out to Gibson what seemed to be a “good ol’ boy” deal when one of Gibson’s friends was awarded a contract to handle Weber County’s real estate business.

The sheriff said he took Gibson’s word for it when the commissioner explained the contract was awarded to Gage Froerer only after a competitive bidding process. Froerer is serving out his term in the Utah House and is running against the incumbent Ebert and James J. Couts for county commission. Gibson also is a former state legislator.

Efforts to talk to Mileski about the Bell retirement dispute were not immediately successful.

BURNS NEGOTIATES FULL RETIREMENT

Burns, meanwhile, ended up with full county retirement benefits after his forced departure from the sheriff’s office.

According to a retirement agreement approved by the county commission April 24, Burns ended employment effective April 16 after 27 years in public safety, which made him eligible for full benefits under the state public safety retirement system.

He also received two benefits listed under the county’s retirement incentive policy: Credit for $51,075 in accrued sick leave, and five years of health and dental insurance coverage.

Burns agreed to release the county from any claims, such as lawsuits.

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Thompson had served notice April 9 that he would terminate Burns after an investigation of drug thefts, evidence contamination and other problems in the sheriff’s office’s evidence room.

The sheriff faulted to Burns, who supervised the evidence room custodian, for failing to act on the custodian’s drug thefts and use of methamphetamine while on duty.

But before the termination could be processed, Burns and his attorney contacted the county human resources office to “explore alternatives to termination,” the retirement agreement said.

On April 13, Burns said he was “forced to retire or face termination and loss of considerable pension benefits.”

Burns said the internal affairs report released last week was loaded against him to “crush” his sheriff’s candidacy.

He said his requests to add video surveillance monitors to the evidence room went unheeded by senior sheriff’s officials.

Thompson said Burns requested the equipment in 2016 but did not categorize it as a high priority for the investigations division he supervised. The sheriff said Burns did not request the equipment again at budget time in 2017.

“Additional cameras or staffing does not change the fact that many indicators were received by Lt. Burns over an extended period of time,” Thompson said in a May 4 email.

You can reach reporter Mark Shenefelt at [email protected] Follow him on Twitter at @mshenefelt and like him on Facebook at Facebook.com/SEMarkShenefelt.

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