Early Retirement Program Attracts 26 County Officials

By JULIA WELLS

A highway superintendent, an executive secretary, a librarian and a jail administrator are among a long list of Vineyarders who will take early retirement this year under a program made possible by an act of the state legislature.

Approved last spring as a cost-cutting measure and signed into law by acting Gov. Jane Swift, the law cleared the way for towns and counties to offer early retirement to employees.

The program is available to employees who are 55 or older with at least 10 years of experience, and to employees of any age with 20 years of experience. The law allows eligible employees to add five years to their age or years of service in calculating their pensions. Pensions are calculated using a formula that includes the number of years worked, the salary and age of the employee.

On the Vineyard, 26 employees will take early retirement by the end of this year.

"I think it sort of tells you something about what we are going through right now - these people want to take some extra time, some time for themselves," said Cynthia Schilling, who is the administrator for the county retirement system.

"It is definitely a benefit. It is a real benefit for the people who are in the system and are eligible," said county treasurer Noreen Flanders.

There are some 1,100 employees in the county retirement system; about 800 are active employees and the rest are retired. The system includes all six Vineyard towns plus the town of Gosnold, the county, and every public and quasi-public agency, including the Martha's Vineyard Commission, the refuse district, the Martha's Vineyard Land Bank, the regional transit authority and all the school administrations. Teachers are not members of the county retirement system because they are covered by the state teacher's retirement system.

The county retirement fund is now valued at about $30 million. Money for the fund is generated by employee contributions and also assessments collected from each of the 16 "units" that participate in the system.

Ms. Schilling, who has been the administrator for the retirement system for 30 years, said early retirement has only been offered twice in her tenure. The last time was 10 years ago, when two employees elected to take early retirement.

"I'm really a little overwhelmed," confessed Ms. Schilling, who is busy processing all the paperwork for those employees taking early retirement.

Ms. Schilling and Ms. Flanders both said there will be an impact on the towns and other agencies who pay into the system, but it is too early to say what the impact will be. In addition to pensions, employees who take early retirement are eligible to receive health insurance benefits at the same rate as when they were employed.

"This will cost the towns money," Ms. Flanders said. She said the rush to early retirement will not affect the pension fund, which has been in place since the late 1940s and is conservatively managed. The fund has lost some money in this most recent period with the downturn in the economy, as have other invested funds like endowments for charitable organizations.

An actuarial valuation of the pension fund is conducted every year. Money in the fund is invested with State Street Global Advisors and the PRIM Fund. Ms. Flanders said the county pension fund is a defined benefit plan as opposed to a defined contribution plan, which she said means the plan is conservatively invested and more stable over a long period of time.

Ms. Flanders said the last time early retirement was offered, not all the towns and other agencies elected to participate. "This time there was more participation and there was an opportunity for more people to take advantage of it. This time it just looked right," the county treasurer said.

Following is a list of the people on the Vineyard who will take early retirement:

Margaret Clothier, regional high school; David Cann, county employee; Edith Yoder, up-Island regional school district; Merle Beaulieu, Tisbury School; Maureen Healey, town of West Tisbury; Donald Medeiros, Oak Bluffs highway department; Lydia Olsen, Edgartown town hall; Francis Roache, town of Tisbury; Harold Smith, Edgartown highway department; Donna Tankard, Tisbury school; Remo Fullin Jr., Tisbury department of public works; Roland Goulart, Edgartown highway department; Carole Larsen, town of Chilmark; Dennis Rose, Oak Bluffs highway department, Joyce Alley, communications center; Carol Borer, Dukes County; Donna deBettencourt, Vineyard schools superintendent's office; Judith Jardin, town of Chilmark; Patricia Maseda, Oak Bluffs library; Mary Lee McCormack, sheriff's department; Laurence Mercier, Edgartown highway department; Manuel Nunes, Edgartown highway department; Cynthia Richard, town of Tisbury; Kathleen Sawyer, regional high school; Joyce Swartz, regional high school, Stephen Torres, Tisbury department of public works.