County job means pension bonanza for Benton

By Stevie Mathieu, Columbian assistant metro editor

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State Sen. Don Benton's new gig as environmental services director for Clark County could triple his state-funded retirement benefit when compared to the benefit he'd receive from working only as a legislator.

If the 56-year-old Vancouver Republican didn't take the county job and instead remained a senator until the state's retirement age of 65, he would receive about $1,900 a month once he retires, or nearly $23,000 a year, according to estimates by The Columbian with assistance from county and state officials. That's assuming his annual legislative pay stays at $42,106 between now and his retirement, though that salary could certainly increase during the next nine years.

But Benton's new county job, coupled with his legislative job, could increase his estimated retirement benefit to more than $5,800 a month, or nearly $70,000 a year. That's a retirement increase of $47,000 annually.

The state Department of Retirement Systems does not disclose full details of specific retirement accounts, but it does have a concrete formula for determining those retirement benefits. Benton's retirement program will base his pension on a formula that considers the number of years he's served and his most lucrative state salaries during any five-year period.

In order for Benton to pull in $70,000 a year in state retirement cash, he would have to work five straight years juggling his legislative job with his new county job.

"In Washington we have a part-time citizen Legislature," Benton said recently in a statement announcing his new job. "Some of my colleagues are county-government employees, and some are otherwise employed in the public sector, in addition to those with private-sector occupations; I expect to wear two 'hats' as well as they do and as I always have since first elected."

If Benton changes his mind and leaves the Senate to focus on his county job, then his monthly retirement benefit at age 65 could be nearly $4,900 a month, or $59,700 a year.

In addition to his public service work, Benton worked in management for Farmers Insurance Group before starting a sales and marketing consulting company.

By the numbers

Benton was elected to the Washington state House of Representatives in 1994 and was sworn in at the beginning of 1995. He became a state senator two years later. He turns 65 in April of 2022, when he would have more than 27 years of public service under his belt.

Would Benton get to receive his Clark County salary while he's working in Olympia as a state senator? Clark County Administrator Bill Barron says no. Benton's county salary is $109,656 a year, but he can use vacation time or unpaid leave when the Legislature is in session. That unpaid leave will impact his annual salary and ultimately impact his retirement benefit.

Every other year, the Washington Legislature rotates between long sessions that last about 15 weeks and short sessions that last more than eight weeks.

Figuring in those leaves of absence, accepting the job as the county's environmental services director increases Benton's public employee salary to at least $120,000 a year -- a $78,000 pay increase. That estimate excludes any special legislative sessions that could be called.

Benton is enrolled in Plan 2 of the Public Employees' Retirement System, often called PERS 2, according to the state Department of Retirement Systems.

Dave Nelsen, the legal and legislative services manager for that department, said he couldn't comment on Benton's specific retirement plan, but he could speak hypothetically about the benefits state employees receive through PERS 2.

Benton is required to put about 5 percent of his state pay into his PERS 2 account, and the state tends to match that 5 percent, Nelsen said. Those rates are set by the state actuary, so they can fluctuate somewhat.

"Essentially, it is a 50-50 funding split," Nelsen said. Most of the time, those employee contributions are made without paying taxes up front, meaning the retirement benefit is subject to federal income tax.

Retirement options

Benton doesn't have to wait until age 65 to retire, but that's what most people do under PERS 2.

It's rare anyone retire before age 65, because the reduction in retirement benefits for retiring early "is pretty significant," Nelsen said. For example, if Benton retired at age 59, the age he will be after his current Senate term ends in 2017, his monthly retirement benefit would be reduced by nearly half.

Benton could also reduce his pension if he makes plans for a survivor on his PERS 2 account. Upon retiring, public employees can pick a someone to receive a portion of their benefits after they die.

Benton ends voluntary pay cut

In 2011, lawmakers reduced most state workers' pay by 3 percent to help bridge a multibillion-dollar state budget deficit, but the reduction did not include lawmakers' salaries. The state workers' cuts mostly came in the form of more unpaid furlough days and larger employee contributions to health care benefits.

The 2011 Legislature passed a resolution that encouraged, but did not require, lawmakers and statewide elected officials to scale back their own pay.

Benton requested his pay be cut by 3 percent beginning July 1, 2011, meaning he received about $100 less each month before taxes and other deductions were removed from his paycheck. He requested that voluntary pay cut end on Dec. 31 of last year, according to Senate staff.

Washington state legislators' salaries haven't increased since 2008.

Benton declined a request seeking comment for this story.

Stevie Mathieu: 360-735-4523 or www.facebook.com/reportermathieu or www.twitter.com/col_politics or stevie.mathieu@columbian.com