As the city revs up for a tempestuous debate this fall on whether to eliminate Philadelphia's DROP retirement benefit, five of the City Council members who have not enrolled in the program have vowed they never will.
"The short answer is no, I am not going to enroll, ever," said Councilman Wilson Goode Jr., one of the five. They would not be eligible to take part in DROP for many years because they are not of retirement age, but they said that did not affect their decisions.
An additional four Council members who are eligible for DROP said they had no plans to enroll.
Seven members have already signed up, a decision that cannot be reversed. Councilman Brian J. O'Neill, who can enroll, did not return a call for comment.
DROP has become one of the most contentious political issues in the city. This month, a report commissioned by Mayor Nutter said the program had cost the city an extra $258 million in pension expenses over the last 10 years.
Council members will start debating DROP when they resume sessions in September, and their personal decisions about the program will affect voter perceptions of them, said Zack Stalberg, president of the watchdog group Committee of Seventy. All 17 are up for election in 2011.
"It's certainly not the ideal situation when your own compensation and your image are so closely tied to a vote," he said.
DROP, which stands for Deferred Retirement Option Plan, lets employees pick a retirement date up to four years in the future. That decision freezes employees' pension benefits, but they start accumulating the payments immediately in an account that pays 4.5 percent interest while they continue working. When they retire, they get the amount in the account and start collecting their monthly pensions.
This month, Nutter called on Council to kill the program, citing the Boston College report he commissioned that put DROP's cost at $22.3 million a year. City employees have argued that the report is flawed and are pressuring Council to keep DROP.
Decisions by some Council members to participate in DROP have compounded the controversy.
Councilwoman Joan L. Krajewski collected a DROP payment of $274,587 in 2008, retired for a day as required according to the city's law department, and returned to work at a salary of $117,990.
The other Council members currently in DROP are Majority Leader Marian B. Tasco, Minority Whip Frank Rizzo, Frank DiCicco, Jack Kelly, and Donna Reed Miller, and Council President Anna C. Verna. Together, they are eligible to collect a total of $2.3 million in DROP benefits by 2012 and to return to office if reelected.
DiCicco has said that if he runs again and wins, he will not collect his salary once he starts accumulating DROP payments.
In 1999, the Rendell administration introduced DROP to help the city better plan for employee retirements.
Critics have said that DROP was never meant for elected officials because offering them such an incentive does not achieve the public policy goal of helping the city plan for retirements.
Five of council's 17 members - Jannie L. Blackwell, Darrell Clarke, Blondell Reynolds Brown, William Greenlee, and O'Neill - are old enough to retire and so also are eligible for DROP but have not participated.
This week, four of them said they had no plans to enroll but would not go as far as saying they never would.
Blackwell and Greenlee said they had no plans to sign up because they are unlikely to retire soon.
"I feel my work isn't done, so I have no intention of entering the DROP," Blackwell said. "But I would never say never, because as I have learned, life changes."
Greenlee expressed a similar feeling.
"I guess I made that decision to attempt to stay here a while before that [DROP] even became an issue," he said. "I hope the voters let me come back a couple times."
If he did enroll in DROP, he said, he would not run again.
Through staffers, Clarke and Brown said they did not plan to enroll but did not say they never would.
Council members Bill Green, Curtis Jones Jr., and Maria Quiñones Sánchez introduced the bill that barred elected officials from DROP. All three recently reiterated pledges not to enroll, though they are not yet old enough to be eligible.
Goode said he decided not to participate because he will not be eligible for 15 years, when he is 60, and he doesn't plan to be working for the city then.
Goode said his other reason is "philosophical." Council this year passed legislation barring elected officials from participating in DROP. Goode said he was trying to honor the spirit of that law, even though it affects only future officeholders, not current ones.
Councilman James Kenney, who also is too young to be eligible, said he never would participate because he plans to vote to kill the program. Public opinion has become impossible to change, Kenney said.
"There is no way to even have any of that discussion, because people are so white-hot about it that there is no debate about it," Kenney said. "I've been around politics and government for 30 years, and some issues have a life of their own."