Will Sununu appoint another double-dipping retiree to replace William Wrenn?

  • Corrections Commissioner William Wrenn will resign effective Nov. 9, 2017, after serving 12 years in the position.

Monitor staff
Monday, September 18, 2017

Last year, William Wrenn got an extra little perk in his paycheck.

Wrenn had reached his 10-year anniversary as the commissioner for the Department of Corrections, which entitled him to a $300 bonus.

It’s an unusual milestone for someone who is technically retired.

And, it’s safe to say, Wrenn didn’t need the bonus.

Since taking the state’s top corrections job two days before Christmas in 2005, Wrenn has collected more than $2.5 million in total compensation from his two publicly funded sources of income. Few public servants in the state have made as much over the same period.

As a commissioner, he is one of the highest-paid state employees. He landed at 103 on the list of top earners in state government, making $125,554 in 2016.

And as the retired Hampton police chief, he’s also one of the state’s top 100 pensioners, receiving $99,042 annually from the New Hampshire Retirement System.

In 2016, between his pension and his salary, Wrenn took home $224,597.

Now, after almost 12 years as commissioner, Wrenn is retiring for the second time from a government job at the end of October.

It’s up to Gov. Chris Sununu to nominate a new commissioner and for the Executive Council to approve.

Sununu has said he will choose the best person for the job, and that might include another retiree.

“While he understands this concern, the governor’s primary focus in filling any vacancy is finding the candidate who will do the best job for the people of New Hampshire,” Sununu spokesman Benjamin Vihstadt said in a statement.

That’s pretty much what Maggie Hassan said when it was up to her to make appointments.

“The governor’s personnel decisions are based on who she believes is best qualified to serve the people of New Hampshire in that particular role,” Hassan’s spokesman said a year ago.

Earlier this summer, Sununu got to choose a new drug czar, and he picked retired Manchester police chief David Mara.

“I am absolutely honored that he would be willing to step up and take the job,” Sununu said in June after Mara’s confirmation to be the governor’s Advisor on Addiction and Behavioral Health. “When we even batted the idea around internally, without any hesitation, I can tell you he was everybody’s first choice.”

Mara was an expensive choice. He makes $95,000 a year in salary on top of his $135,114 pension.

But it doesn’t have to be that way.

The man Wrenn replaced in December 2005, former corrections commissioner Stephen Curry, wasn’t a state retiree.

Retirement officials acknowledge these high-profile double-dippers don’t look good at a time when every town, city and school district in the state is being asked to pay more to cover the system’s $4 billion unfunded liability. These increased payments drive up spending and taxes.

People like Wrenn create a double drain on the retirement system. The $1.15 million in pension paid to him over the past 11½ years is no longer in the system’s investment portfolio and gaining interest. At the same time, the system took in no new payments from the state on the $1.36 million he made as commissioner, which would have kept the fund healthier for future retirees.

That’s why unions don’t like the practice of high-profile double-dipping because they want the state retirement system to be financially solvent for today’s firefighters, police officers and schoolteachers who are contributing into the fund.

Many ideas have been proposed to limit the practice of double-dipping, including capping the hours for part-time retirees who return to government work. But Wrenn and other high-profile appointments made by the governor are exempt from those limits.

When Wrenn officially retired on Jan. 1, 2006, after 31 years in Hampton, he had the choice of continuing to contribute to the retirement system, which would have led to a greater pension down the road, or start collecting his pension immediately and his state paycheck, too.

But it doesn’t take a financial adviser to point out that it’s far more lucrative to retire, then collect both a pension and a salary at the same time.

When other top earners like State Police Col. Christopher Wagner and Assistant Commissioner of the Department of Safety Robert Quinn were faced with the same decision, they chose to double-dip, too.

This year Quinn will take home $212,896 in salary and pension. Wagner, who became colonel last year after Quinn was promoted, will earn $173,045, according to public records.

And it’s all perfectly legal.

Except you won’t see many retired schoolteachers getting these kinds of perks, because they have to work a full 40-year career to get their pensions. Police officers and firefighters can retire early, giving them the opportunity to work another 10 to 20 years while amassing millions in salary and pension payments.

While none of these individuals will bankrupt the retirement system, each one has been described as a pinhole in the bucket. Get enough pinholes, and soon, your bucket leaks like a sieve.

(Jonathan Van Fleet can be reached at 369-3303, jvanfleet@cmonitor.com or on Twitter @CMonitor_JVF.)