The diminishing respect many taxpayers exhibit toward both public employees and public agencies is well explained by a recent story in U-T San Diego entitled “Officials want overpaid pensioner to return $500K.”

It seems a Sheriff’s Department captain retired in 1993 on an annual pension of about $97,000. His wife subsequently divorced him and was awarded about a third of his pension payments. She died in 1997, so the retiree requested restoration of his full pension. It took TWO YEARS to accomplish this herculean task, and he was given retroactive payments, but somehow, his pension was increased a second time by the amount his wife had been drawing, and he began receiving almost $148,000 annually, which he later claimed he didn’t realize was in error.

The huge overpayment continued until September of last year. Luckily, a taxpayer watchdog group, California Foundation for Fiscal Responsibility, requested information on retirees receiving pensions over $100,000 annually. The request, filed in July 2010, was, of course, fought by the retirement system until told by a court more than a year later that it had to comply, and it soon thereafter discovered its overpayment that had been going on for more than 10 years!

The system reduced the retired captain’s pension from more than $12,000 monthly to the correct amount of around $8,000, and the retiree, of course, claimed he hadn’t noticed the amount he had been receiving was a bit large. Nevertheless, the heartless county demanded repayment, and with interest, can you believe? They suddenly thought it was important to recover the overpayment so they could pay pensions to other county retirees? Negotiations ensued, but to no avail.

Enter good old Michael Conger, a local lawyer who has been making a handsome living suing the city and the county on behalf of disgruntled employees and former employees for ages. After being retained, he claimed his client didn’t have the money because he’d paid most of it in taxes, was sick (naturally), and that the county had made no offer of settlement, which the county disputed.

So there the matter stands. The retiree (and Conger) apparently thinks “finders, keepers” and the retiree is, of course, sick as he may be, unavailable for comment because he’s out of town.

The excuse by the county retirement bureaucracy, which regularly touts the efficiency of its systems? The tried and true explanation, “the computer ate my homework.”

I’m sure that Voice readers like myself who worked most of our careers in the private sector find this tale simply beyond belief. Milton Friedman, I think, is credited with the observation that people who spend other people’s money on some third party take the loosest care of it. One has to believe that the error would never have been discovered, even after the retiree passed away, had not a public records request forced them to examine their records. And people claim outsourcing creates problems?

Bill Bradshaw lives in Mission Beach.

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