A Double Dipper's Worst Enemy
Pete Brewer admits he's a gadfly, an agent provocateur of Hollywood officialdom. For this resident it's a salute of praise, but city officials who have been called to task by Brewer for wasting money use the word derisively.
"Mr. Brewer's 'facts' -- and I put quotations around the word facts -- are almost always incorrect," claims Mayor Mara Giulianti, who expelled a bellyful of invective breath after Brewer's name came up in a conversation last week. "He's just a gadfly."
A silver-haired, soft-spoken one at that, who's investigations and complaints have ultimately saved city taxpayers thousands of dollars. Once, for example, Brewer forced the resignation of a $70,000-per-year official who used public money to send flowers to another official. "I didn't care if one guy sent another guy flowers," Brewer recalls, "I just didn't think he should do it with our money." Another time he gathered a month's worth of long-distance telephone bills from city hall and embarrassed officials by showing that taxpayers were funding many expensive personal calls. That put the practice permanently on hold.
Since 1991, when he served on a short-lived volunteer committee picked to offer budget advice, Brewer has scrutinized the official bottom line. Closely. Officials don't appreciate the help. They killed off the budget committee, but they haven't silenced Brewer, who has done it yet again.
This time Giulianti and Finance Director Carlos Garcia, among others, refuse to give him even a breath of credit for his part in forcing them to end questionable double dipping -- the costly practice that allows workers harvesting monthly disability paychecks from the City of Hollywood to earn full-time salaries elsewhere with no penalty.
Hollywood's new policy, as yet unpracticed on human beings, will require future pensioners to submit tax forms to the city each year that they work. They may have to accept reduced disability incomes. And in lieu of forking over sizable pensions, officials now have the right to find other city jobs for those who can still work.
But that's not good enough for the 65-year-old Brewer, a Velvet Creme Doughnut Company executive who settled on Cleveland Avenue 31 years ago.
He embraces the concept of disability pay, he says, but he wants to know why officials won't ask any of the 95 current pensioners to accept reduced checks if they go back to work. And why officials don't know who is working and who isn't. And why they won't require those pensioners, who now collectively receive about $1.7 million each year from the city, to provide annual affidavits describing their health, a requirement in half the cities in the state, according to the Florida League of Cities.
"That's a Band-Aid solution," says Brewer, criticizing the limited policy change that finally occurred long after he began protesting in 1997. Although Brewer received neither credit nor thanks, he earned a response from Finance Director Garcia that suggests just how much money he helped to save his fellow townies. "Mr. Brewer, you'll be happy to know that the disability benefits issue raised by the auditors has been resolved . [T]his issue cost the city between $210,000 and $280,000 annually," Garcia wrote in July.
The same issue was raised by auditors not once but seven times in annual reports dating from 1993. Reputable firms hired by the city, including Arthur Anderson & Co., PricewaterhouseCoopers, and Coopers & Lybrand, objected to the fact that disabled pensioners could continue receiving checks ranging from $400 to about $4600 a month while potentially going out to earn full-time paychecks in other careers -- and all with the stamp of city approval.
Brewer points to one example: Former police officer James McGee. He gets about $1800 a month in disability pay for a motorcycle accident injury he suffered more than 15 years ago, records show, and simultaneously earns another full-time salary for his work as a city code-enforcement officer, a job which he began in 1991. His combined checks equal about $50,000 a year. McGee replied to New Times' questions about his two incomes with a terse, "No comment." Many others may do the same thing in jobs outside the city, but officials don't know because they haven't bothered to keep track.
Jim Carnicella, whose job as human resources director makes him the taxpayers' champion in union negotiations, shies away from the notion of tracking current pensioners, either to spot malingerers or to see if they're working. "Yeah, we could probably go ahead and check on [them], I don't really see anything stopping us. But here's the problem: We have a very delicate understanding now with the union," which he says could make future negotiations difficult.
Such an understanding, says Carol Marchner, a labor expert for the Florida League of Cities, is "all too common. We don't think it's right. A city can check, and many cities do. It's the responsible thing to do."
Garcia puts it another way. "We couldn't [check] unless the union agreed, and they probably wouldn't. And the charter doesn't provide for it," he says. "But yeah, it would be a good idea."
Nonsense, says union representative Richard Templeton. A retired city worker now paid by the American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees, Templeton insists the city's hands are tied only by its own official ignorance. "The city has always had the ability to have people looked at if they think they're malingerers, they just never knew how. Yes, there are malingerers. But hell, we have administrators who don't administrate and supervisors who don't supervise, and they're malingerers too."
Templeton also agrees that the new rules -- allowing officials access to the tax forms and even medical reports of pensioners and allowing the city to offer some disabled workers jobs before automatically paying their pensions -- are "fair and equitable to everybody." But he won't accept any proposed change in the old rules that would apply to the 95 current disability pensioners. "That was the agreement they had, and that's it," he insists.
Giulianti agrees. "What's fair and right isn't always legal," she says. "But we can't retroactively apply to somebody a different law just because one is bad. They operated under certain assumptions."
Official failure to challenge that agreement, to try to tune up a costly and clumsy law, is a political decision that will only continue hurting taxpayers, Brewer says. "It's really about politics, and you have to keep that in perspective. There's a [February] election coming up. And no one wants to lose the unions' support by questioning their pensions."
Especially when Templeton and other representatives of the general employee union are going to interview all 16 current candidates for Hollywood office this week.
Contact Roger Williams at his e-mail address:
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