Sununu’s picks for top department of safety jobs exempt from N.H. double dipping laws

  • New Hampshire Republican Gov. Chris Sununu pauses for a standing ovation during his inaugural address during a ceremony at the State House in Concord, N.H., Thursday, Jan. 3, 2019. Sununu begins his second, two-year term facing a Legislature controlled by Democrats. (AP Photo/Charles Krupa) Charles Krupa

Monitor staff
Published: 3/25/2019 3:36:31 PM

Despite new laws to limit the hours public employees can work in government jobs after they retire, some top state employees are exempt from those rules.

Earlier this month, Gov. Chris Sununu nominated Robert Quinn, the current assistant commissioner of the state’s department of safety, to take over as its new commissioner.

Sununu’s nominee to take over Quinn’s spot is Perry Plummer, the state director of homeland security and emergency management.

Both are collecting pensions from the New Hampshire Retirement System while also collecting state salaries.

Quinn retired from the state police on May 1, 2010, but has continued to work for the department of safety ever since, collecting an annual pension of $93,791. On top of that, Quinn made $123,494 in 2017 as assistant commissioner (the most recent year state salary information is available).

Plummer retired as Dover’s fire chief on May 1, 2011. He collects an annual pension of $72,851. In 2017, he made $115,629 from the state.

Legislative attempts to limit full-time double dipping have left these high profile state jobs untouched.

Legislative attempts to limit the practice of state employees receiving both a salary and a pension – known as double dipping – have left these high profile state jobs untouched, which means this is all perfectly legal.

When Quinn was first nominated by then-Gov. Maggie Hassan after a second assistant commissioner position was created at the department, Sununu expressed some concern.

“The State of New Hampshire has taken steps and should continue to take steps to limit the amount of double dipping among the state’s workforce,” Sununu said in 2016 when he was a candidate for governor. “Double dipping limits the amount of upward mobility in our employment structure and costs the state money in the long-run. There are certain situations, though, where exceptions might be appropriate given an individual’s background and expertise for the position being sought. ”

Now as governor, the issue was a non-factor for Sununu when appointing Quinn and Plummer.

“Governor Sununu nominates individuals based on merits and experience,” Sununu’s spokesman Benjamin Vihstadt said. “Retirement status did not play into the decision making.”

A look at state records shows Quinn, still shy of his 60th birthday, has collected close to $800,000 from the New Hampshire Retirement System while continuing to work – first as state police colonel and then as assistant commissioner – and now he’s in line for another promotion just as his term was about to expire.

His own contributions to his pension – including interest – were $524,377, according to the retirement system. The state contributed on his behalf too, but those figures aren’t available on an individual basis.

There’s a precedent to Quinn’s appointment.

Former Safety Commissioner John Barthelmes retired in 1999 from the state police with an annual pension of $53,922. Last month, he retired again nearly 20 years later. In that time, he collected more than $1 million from the New Hampshire Retirement System and more than $2 million in salary. Before retiring, he contributed $186,695, including interest, to his pension.

Former trooper Christopher Wagner retired from the State Police in 2016 when he took over for Quinn as the head of State Police. Wagner started collecting a $66,978 annual pension one month after he was approved for his new job by the Executive Council, which included an affirmative vote from Sununu. Wagner was paid $109,359 in 2017.

New rules passed by the Legislature limit the hours most retirees can work – up to 26 hours a week, or 1,352 hours a calendar year. However, many of the state’s top jobs, like the positions of commissioner and assistant commissioner remain exempt from those rules.

The New Hampshire Firefighter’s Union is against widespread double dipping. They argue collecting a pension and a paycheck prematurely drains the system leaving it insolvent for the current group of employees paying in.

The union’s main target is towns that convert full-time positions to part-time to get an employee for less money, while avoiding paying back into the pension system.

“The towns and cities are enticing these guys to do it,” said William McQuillen, president of the firefighter’s unions. “They’re enticing these guys, and they continue to do it.”

McQuillen doesn’t have a problem with Quinn and Plummer moving up the ranks while collecting pensions, because those positions typically don’t contribute to the pension system. It’s up to the appointee to choose whether he will continue to contribute to the retirement system like most full-time state workers, or collect a pension on top of his salary.

Closing this loophole at the top of the state ladder would have little impact on the retirement system financially or even symbolically, McQuillen said.

Executive Councilor Andru Volinsky, who will have one of five votes on the appointments of Quinn and Plummer, isn’t so sure.

“It’s not a disqualifier for me. It’s something that should be looked at legislatively,” Volinsky said by phone Saturday.

Leaving the loophole open may be a way to compensate high qualified state employees who could make more in the private sector or by taking other jobs out of state, where New Hampshire retirement laws have no effect.

But the issue should be considered by the Legislature given the state-wide concern over the viability of the retirement system, Volinsky said.

Sununu wouldn’t say if he supports a legislative move to close the loophole at the top of the state’s pay scale.

“Governor Sununu believes it is important to make sure that any changes to the law would not prevent well-qualified individuals from serving in state government,” Vihstadt said.

To be sure, the issue is felt beyond the State House as the financial health of the retirement system is felt state-wide.

For every dollar every town and city sends to the New Hampshire Retirement System, 20 cents goes to cover the pensions of current working employees, the other 80 cents goes to pay down the system’s $4 billion unfunded liability.

Everything Quinn, Plummer, Wagner and Barthelmes has done is perfectly legal. They accepted their appointed positions, which were approved by the Executive Council, and collected the pensions available to them by law.

The council was scheduled to vote on the appointments at its meeting on Wednesday, but because Volinsky is out of state, the vote is now expected to happen at the meeting on April 17.

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