Mecklenburg County retirees continue to fight for benefits they were promised

CHARLOTTE — Over the past four decades, Mecklenburg County spent as much as $80 million to pay benefits coverage for family members of retirees.

Channel 9 filed a records request to obtain public information regarding the benefits.

The county manager is calling the payments a mistake, but former employees tell Channel 9 that’s money they’re owed.

In April, the Human Resources Department for the county sent a letter to retirees saying they’d need to pay much higher rates to continue covering their dependents or find new coverage.

It caught more than 300 former county employees by surprise.

Retirees claim the practice of covering both them and their families at a discounted rate is something that was promised in the 1980s.

They sent Channel 9 documents to back it up.

Six months ago, Channel 9′s Madison Carter tried to ask the county for details about the payments when they discovered what they believed to be an error.

Officials refused to tell Carter, so Channel 9 made a records request for information, which Carter just learned was readily available at the time of her inquiry.

Letters went out to retirees on April 15 saying they’d need to find new coverage for their dependents or pay higher rates.

The letter read: “Please be advised that the county’s policy has always stated retirees are responsible for paying their portion of the individual premium and the full premium for dependents.”

Retirees said that is not true.

In new documents, a retiree shared with Channel 9 dated Jan. 25, 1981, the county manager, at the time, recommended action to amend the contractual agreement with retirees to cover dependents at the active employee group rate.

Minutes from a meeting Feb. 2, 1981, show the recommendation was unanimously adopted by the board of commissioners one month later.

Channel 9 asked but has been unable to find record of the board of commissioners reversing this decision at any point in the last four decades.

Even the county’s annual financial reports, published as recently as 2022, say: “Retirees can purchase medical insurance coverage for their dependents at the county’s group rate.”

When we asked for details on how much money the county believes was spent in error, officials wouldn’t tell Channel 9.

They haven’t been answering questions from retirees, either.

“They will tell us anything,” said former Sheriff Jim Pendergraph. “We asked for some information on the process, and they said you have to get it through the county portal to get it. And we don’t know where it is.”

Channel 9 used that county records request portal to get the information retirees have been seeking and just obtained an internal email, which was dated before we asked for details.

In it, the county manager said it costs nearly $1 million per year for coverage of retiree dependents.

A week later, the budget director emailed her a correction saying it was closer to $2 million.

Retirees maintain through records they’ve kept and shared with Channel 9 that this is money they’re owed.

The county paused all changes to retiree benefits in May pending a full report from the county manager after Channel 9′s report.

Carter was informed by Commissioner Susan Rodriguez-McDowell that an update from the county manager is expected at a public meeting next Tuesday.

Carter asked the county for a response to the records and clarity on why it believes the payments are a mistake and was told it was working on one but did not provide it in time for this report.

Channel 9 is also asking the county if it is withholding public records. When we asked for email communications from the county manager related to the changes, we only got documents dated after letters went out to the former employees. Withholding public records is a violation of state law.

VIDEO: Benefits that should not go to county retirees’ dependents to continue

Madison Carter

Madison Carter, wsoctv.com

Madison is an investigative reporter and anchor for Channel 9.

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