CHARLOTTE, N.C. - A Channel 9 investigation uncovered how dozens of city workers have retired, only to be rehired by the same department.
Those employees are receiving their city pensions and new salaries in a practice that many call double dipping.
The list includes several fire inspectors, like John Thompson. He currently makes $73,681.40 as a senior inspector for the department, and takes in another $72,933 per year from his Charlotte Fire Department pension.
Fellow fire inspectors Fred Lowery and Paul Williams Jr. and emergency management planner Larry Goff also take in more than $100,000 annually between their pensions and salaries.
Capt. Rob Brisley retired from his job as public information officer and receives $82,105 in an annual pension. The department then temporarily rehired him on a contract basis, paying him $43 an hour.
"Clearly that's a very questionable use of local money,” said Michael Lowrey of conservative think tank the John Locke Foundation.
Lowrey showed Channel 9 how other states warn retirees about the possible tax consequences of retiring and receiving benefits and then getting rehired by the same department.
The same rules apply in North Carolina.
"If they are retiring below a certain age, they have to be engaged in a real retirement. It can't be a sham.It can't be a trick. That's the bigger issue, because if the IRS comes calling, it can get really expensive really fast,” Lowrey said.
Jack Petty worked for the North Carolina Department of Transportation for 37½ years.
When he retired in 2004, he accepted an offer to work for a Maryland consulting company as a surveyor on the Highway 321 widening project.
In 2010, he got a letter demanding that he pay back more $60,000 into his state retirement fund.
"I just could not comprehend. I thought it was a mistake,” Petty said.
The state retirement system said Petty broke the rules by returning to work for the private Maryland company, because it was receiving funds from North Carolina and he made more than half of his retirement salary.
Petty said he is repaying $1,000 each month
However, Petty doesn't believe that he was double dipping.
"I felt like I had earned the retirement that was set out in the rules and I had worked that minimum 30 years,” he said. “And to go back with a separate entity, a separate company, I had no idea. If I had, I wouldn't have (gone)."
The Charlotte -Mecklenburg Police Department sent Channel 9 its rules, which are similar to those of the NCDOT.
It also shared a list of 40 retirees who are back at work for the department.
While receiving their pensions, the employees can earn either 50 percent of their gross retirement pay or $31,000, whichever is greater.
The Charlotte Fire Department has its own retirement system. The offices are in a building on East Fourth Street.
Unlike other city workers, Charlotte firefighters can retire and be rehired by the department full time after 30 days. The department considers them new employees and does not allow them to do the work in the same position.
There is no limit on how much they can make.
None of the people who have been rehired agreed to an interview, but the department sent a statement that reads, in part: "Charlotte fire employees are highly skilled professionals who receive training in many specialized areas. If we can continue to bring their expertise -- including after retirement -- to the department and the residents of Charlotte, that is a benefit to everyone."
The city said it isn't aware of any situation that would jeopardize the Charlotte Fire Pension's tax-deferred status.
Channel 9 contacted several council members about the rehiring of retired Charlotte fire employees.
Councilman David Howard supported the idea.
"I could understand the benefit of rehiring veterans for positions. I think the fact they are able to work full time is a state question, not a city question, because it is state law,” Howard said.
Lowrey believes that Charlotte Fire's pension goes beyond its original intention of providing for firefighters and their loved ones after they retire.
"We have a fire department that isn't being a good steward of the hard-earned money that we as taxpayers are giving them,” he said.
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