COLUMBIA — The city of Columbia paid nearly $52,000 toward the early retirement in December of Chief Randy Scott, who was rehired two weeks later but has been on an unexplained, indefinite leave of absence since April 2.
The payment to the S.C. Retirement System was authorized on Sept. 25 by then-city manager Steve Gantt, according to a memo from Gantt to the city’s deputy finance director. The city paid the money to purchase two years and 10 months of retirement credits on behalf of Scott. The city’s payout and rehiring of Scott meant he could draw a salary as well as monthly retirement benefits before state laws governing early buyouts became tougher this year.
The city did not require Scott to sign any contracts or agreements that would require him to repay the money should he leave his job with the city for any reason, said Leshia Utsey, a city spokeswoman.
The memo from Gantt that authorized the $51,861 payment was obtained by The State newspaper through a Freedom of Information Act request.
Efforts to reach Gantt on Friday evening were unsuccessful.
City Manager Teresa Wilson said it was her understanding that Gantt had briefed City Council on the retirement payment. But she did not know why the decision was made because it happened under another city manager’s tenure.
The city announced April 2 that Scott was taking an indefinite, personal leave of absence. Since then, Wilson has refused to explain the circumstances surrounding Scott’s leave, saying it is a personnel issue. She also has not said when he might return.
When the leave was first announced, Wilson told The State newspaper that she had been considering taking disciplinary action against the chief. She told the paper that some complaints had come to her attention but would not elaborate. When asked about those complaints on Friday, Wilson said, “It is absolutely my responsibility to look into those and address them. That is what we have been doing and are continuing to do. As much as I believe in transparency, I can’t answer questions about that.”
City officials said Scott was continuing to receive his salary while he was away because he was using his leave time.
Scott was hired as interim chief in October 2010, and the interim tag was removed in January 2011. Before becoming chief, he worked 16 years at the Richland County Sheriff’s Department and served five years in the Marine Corps.
He was one of scores of public employees across the state who retired before the new year because of pending changes in the state retirement system.
Before Jan. 2, anyone who retired could return to work at a government agency and receive paychecks and a pension check with no limits. After Jan. 2, anyone who retired then returned to work would have a $10,000 cap on their annual pension earnings, said David Avant, executive director of the Public Employee Benefit Authority.
If employees do not have enough years of service to be eligible to reach the retirement mark, they are allowed, within certain limits, to buy credits to reach that retirement mark. Police and fire employees need to have worked 25 years to be eligible.
Scott did not have years invested in the state retirement system, but he had served in the military. He was able to apply that time toward his retirement, but he had to pay for it.
When Scott retired, he was all but guaranteed his job back after he spent a mandatory 15 days in retirement. The city advertised the chief’s position, and Scott was the only qualified candidate to apply.
Scott was not the only city employee who retired before the retirement system changes took effect. But he was the only employee for whom the city purchased credits, Utsey said.
For example, Fire Chief Aubrey Jenkins also retired in late 2012 and was rehired by the city. But the city did not purchase credits on his behalf because he already had enough years in the system, Wilson said.
The city has purchased retirement credits for employees in years past, Utsey said. In those cases, the city was trying to downsize its staff amid the recession in 2009 and 2010 and used the credit purchases as an incentive for people to retire early, she said.
Utsey said it would take time to research the city’s history on purchasing retirement credits for a department head such as Scott.
When asked why the city agreed to purchase retirement credits on behalf of Scott, Wilson, who has been city manager since early January, referred to a written explanation attached to the documents.
“This purchase was intended to offset loss of future benefits, including health insurance following retirement, lost when Chief Scott resigned from the Richland County Sheriff’s Department,” the explanation said.
No one interviewed for this story could offer a more clear explanation. Efforts to reach City Council members were not successful.
Local and state governments are allowed under state law to purchase retirement credits for employees, Avant said.
Typically, credits are used as an early retirement incentive. But he said a credit purchase could be used as a retention incentive for an employee that a government or university, for example, wanted to keep.
“I know it happens, but I don’t know how often,” Avant said.
Scott, who was born and raised in Columbia, has been considered a rising star and the answer to years of turnover in the chief’s office. In December, he received the prestigious Strom Thurmond award for city officer of the year from the U.S. Attorney’s Office. He was nominated by Mayor Steve Benjamin.
It’s not unusual for employers to extend extra benefits to an employee they want to keep, said Fred Manning, a labor lawyer with Fisher & Phillips law firm in Columbia. For example, companies often pay for workers to earn advanced degrees with the understanding that the employee will repay the tuition if he leaves within a certain time frame.
It is rare for no agreement to be put in place for those sorts of benefits, he said.