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County employees get early retirement push

Spokane County will offer an incentive to county employees who are eligible to retire but not yet 65 – help with medical insurance they’d have to pay until Medicare kicks in.

It’s one way the county will try to convince some higher paid employees to leave voluntarily now and reduce the number of layoffs it may need next year.

County commissioners voted unanimously Tuesday to offer payments of up to $20,000 over 42 months to special Health Retirement Accounts that would be set up for long-time employees who opt for early retirement.

The county doesn’t control the rules of its various employees’ retirement plans, which are run by the state, Chief Executive Officer Marshall Farnell said. It can, however, offer incentives to employees who qualify for retirement but aren’t considering it because they can’t afford medical insurance, by placing money in special accounts that can be used to pay the premiums.

Those who have worked between five and 10 years and are eligible to retire will qualify for $10,000, with an additional $1,000 per year of service up to a maximum of $20,000. The payments would be spread out over three and a half years.

But they’ll have to decide by June 30, and retire by July 31.   

Human Resources Director Cathy Malzahn said there could be as many as 260 employees who would be eligible for some level of payment.

In some small departments, more than half the employees might qualify for the insurance payments. If they all opted to retire, it could create a staffing problem, but giving department heads the power to “pick and choose” who could take advantage of the offer could create legal problems, Steve Bartel, the county’s risk manager, said.

Commissioner Mark Richard suggested some might be willing to come back and train their replacements.

While the plan may be attractive to county workers in their early 60s, it probably won’t be much help to sheriff’s deputies, Detective David Skogen of the deputies union said. Deputies typically retire after 30 years, in their early to mid 50s.

“Law enforcement officers have earlier retirement age for a reason. Thirty years is a long time to do what I do,” Skogen said.

But 42 months of payment toward health insurance will leave them far short of qualifying for Medicare. He urged commissioners to remove the cap, arguing that extending the insurance payments would be cheaper than having the deputies stay on the job an extra 10 years and paying their salaries and benefits.

Commissioners said, however, that while the plan wasn’t perfect, it was the result of a series of discussions which made several changes, such as extending the time limit from 18 months to 42 months.  

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The Spokesman-Review's political team keeps a critical eye on local, state and national politics.