Retirementville: O'Connell gets the hero's treatment

Every year, City Council votes on City Manager Gary O'Connell's compensation, and this year's benefit package has generated some grousing.

It's not O'Connell's five percent raise that upped his salary to $135,000. It's his additional appointment to a heretofore nonexistent position that's bugging critics.

O'Connell is now the "director of public safety," a position that comes with a nifty perk. It allows him to retire three years early, at age 55, with full benefits designed for police and fire officials.

One angry city employee alleges that treating the deskbound O'Connell like the heroic battlers of fires and bullets will cost the city $310,000. "I think there are a lot of rumors floating around," says O'Connell. "This is not a current cost out of the current budget."

He's seen an email that says the city is spending hundreds of thousands of dollars out of the budget to fund his new retirement plan. "That's absolutely not true," he says.

O'Connell, 52, says the director of public safety retirement package will cost the city an additional 2.67 percent of his annual salary– about $3,600– on top of the 15.46 percent Charlottesville already pays yearly for each employee under the city retirement plan.

And he thinks he knows the source of the large number floating around. That's called "purchase of prior service," which means that city employees who worked in other government branches or localities, including the military, can add up to five years to the numbers the city uses to figure out retirement benefits by paying the city a percentage of their current salary.

"I spent a six-figure number out of my own pocket to do that," says O'Connell, who worked in Tennessee before coming to Charlottesville, where he has 27 years of service. He declines to say exactly how much he spent.

One city resident, who did not want to be identified, asks about O'Connell's qualifications to be director of public safety in the post-9/11 world. "It's a waste of money," claims the citizen, "and he's lining his pockets without citizens being alerted to the fact."

Did the negotiation of O'Connell's retirement package slip under the radar? "If your radar's broken," deadpans councilor Blake Caravati. "It was publicly discussed twice."

O'Connell has a five-year employment contract, and each year, his job performance and salary are negotiated with City Council. Caravati calls this year's retirement package "a slap on the back for a job well done."

As for his public safety qualifications, O'Connell says, "No one else does what I do." For instance, he's chair of the Emergency Operations Center, and he points out, "I got three calls this weekend."

He also says there's legal wisdom in naming him director of public safety, to make it "absolutely clear that's my responsibility."

Because police and fire employees have a mandatory retirement age of 60, their retirement benefits are supplemented from the time of retirement until Social Security kicks in.

So if O'Connell decides to retire at 55– and he says he hopes he doesn't– he'll receive full benefits.

And he's not apologizing for the perk from Council. "I guess they think I'm doing a good job," he observes. "As part of my package of benefits, this is one means to do something financial for me."


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