When controversy surrounding the Deferred Retirement Option Plan (DROP) was roiling Philly politics eight years ago, then-City Councilmember Blondell Reynolds Brown said she wouldn’t enroll in the program.
Never mind that.
Brown retired from elected office last month and took a newly created position in Register of Wills Tracey Gordon’s office. Last week, she applied to enroll in DROP, said Mike Dunn, a spokesperson for Mayor Jim Kenney. Although the city confirmed she submitted an application to join the program, Brown said she has not yet decided to enroll.
“Last week I made inquiries about the DROP program to get an official answer about the benefits I became eligible for during my tenure as an employee of the City of Philadelphia,” Brown said in a statement. “I am weighing my options and I have not made a final determination at this time.”
A retirement perk for municipal workers that has cost several members of Council their political careers, DROP allows employees to pick a retirement date up to four years in the future, then immediately start accumulating pension payments in an interest-bearing account while still earning a salary. They collect a lump sum upon retirement, sometimes totaling hundreds of thousands of dollars. Their pensions are frozen at the level earned at the time they signed up for the program.
The program was intended to make city government more efficient by allowing managers to plan for employees’ exits in advance. But it has been criticized for allowing workers, especially elected officials, to “double-dip” by simultaneously earning salaries and accruing pension payouts.
Patrick Christmas, policy director for the good-government group Committee of Seventy, said Brown’s reversal on DROP is “extremely disappointing.”
“What is particularly egregious is that it was never intended for elected officials,” Christmas said. “She had her salary as a Council member. She will get a pension as a Council member. But the dollars that go into a DROP — those are dollars that are not going to critical needs in the city, and there are plenty of critical needs.”
The city isn’t able to calculate Brown’s expected DROP payment yet. But the length of her experience in city government would likely put her payout well into six figures. As Council’s majority whip, Brown’s final annual salary in elected office was $137,000. Her salary in Gordon’s office is $102,000.
As word spread last month that Brown was pursuing a job in city government for when her Council career was over, she declined to say whether she would enroll in DROP. “It’s nobody’s business but mine,” Brown said in January.
The Board of Pensions received Brown’s DROP application on Feb. 18, and the application has not yet been processed, Dunn said.
“It would not be appropriate to speak to any individual city worker’s decision to enter DROP,” Dunn said in a statement. “But the mayor’s position on DROP has not wavered: He has long had misgivings about the cost of the program to the city’s pension fund and that its use by elected officials is wrong. By the way, the mayor has stated unequivocally that he will not enter DROP.”
From its inception in 1999 through 2015, DROP cost taxpayers between $237 million and $277 million, according to a study by the Pennsylvania Intergovernmental Cooperation Authority, a state-appointed board that oversees Philadelphia’s finances.
In her new job, Brown heads a new initiative to preserve records at the Register of Wills Office, some of which date back to the 1600s, Gordon said.
“One of the recommendations out of the transition team was an immediate plan to create a private-public partnership to find resources to maintain the thousands of historical records in our office,” Gordon said in a statement. “Councilwoman Reynolds Brown has been a well-known advocate for historic preservation and in her time in City Council successfully fought for legislation to increase funding in maintaining the city’s history.”
Through a spokesperson, Gordon said she had not been officially notified that Brown applied to DROP.
“The register has not been notified by the city board of pensions or by her internal HR department of the councilwoman’s intent to enter DROP,” spokesperson Mustafa Rashed said. “If Councilwoman Reynolds Brown enrolls in this benefit program, the office is prepared to work with her for a smooth transition.”