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Wednesday, December 14, 2005 - Page updated at 12:00 AM

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Heavy overtime boosts pensions for deputies

Seattle Times staff reporter

King County sheriff's deputies who have more than doubled their income by working overtime will continue to reap a windfall when they retire.

One deputy, who has averaged more than 1,600 hours of overtime in each of the past five years, has more than doubled his pension to at least $6,800 a month compared with $2,800 for a deputy who had not worked overtime, based on current salary numbers. Pensions are based on a deputy's five highest-paid consecutive years.

The King County Sheriff's Office recently has become concerned about the amount of overtime some patrol deputies have logged, fearing it could lead to fatigue and become a safety issue. While sheriff's officials acknowledge overtime is necessary given the department's staffing, leaves and vacation, Sheriff Sue Rahr is looking into limiting the number of hours in a row that deputies can work.

But the pension issue underscores how the system allows deputies to log extensive overtime now and thus drastically increase their pension benefits.

The state Department of Retirement Systems calculates pensions by using a deputy's average salary — an average based on a deputy's highest-paid consecutive 60 months, including both base salary and overtime pay. The same policy applies to all pensions the state manages for law-enforcement officers and firefighters who were hired after 1977.

As a result, deputies can increase their pensions by working a large amount of overtime for a five-year period.

In one case, King County sheriff's Deputy Mike Miner worked 1,755 hours of overtime in 2004, an average of 34 hours a week. That year, his gross earnings were $151,174.

Miner, who works in the sheriff's Northeast Precinct, will be eligible for at least $6,800 a month after working an average of 1,600 overtime hours each of the past five years, or 30 hours a week. His annual pension will total at least $81,600, based on 28 years of service if he retires at the full retirement age of 53. His base pension without overtime would have been about $2,800 a month, or $33,600 a year if he retired at 53. The pension increases if Miner, 49, continues to work past the age of 53.

Deputy Jeff Dorsch, 42, who works in the sheriff's Southeast Precinct, will receive at least $5,900 a month — if he retires at 53 — after working an average of 1,400 annual overtime hours the past five years. His base pension if he hadn't worked overtime would have been about $2,500 a month.

Neither Miner nor Dorsch returned calls seeking comment.

The Sheriff's Office is not concerned with how the deputies' pensions will be affected by excessive overtime, because it relies on deputies to work overtime to fill some shifts.

"Clearly, that is a way to increase your pension," said Sgt. John Urquhart, sheriff's spokesman.

Urquhart said Miner had been working large amounts of overtime for about five years, and "the pension is his money as well, it's not like it's coming from the state completely. ... If he isn't making it, somebody else would be because we're filling positions that need to be filled."

If the hours were filled with a deputy working a regular 40-hour week instead of overtime, the state would pay less to the pension fund because its contribution would be based on regular wages instead of time-and-a-half pay.

"You're working at an enhanced hourly wage — time and a half — therefore you're paying more money into the system," Urquhart said.

"If you work for 30 years, your pension is based on the top five; it conceivably could skew your benefits," Urquhart said. "I'm not going to dispute that."

Law-enforcement officers and firefighters contribute 6.99 percent of their earnings to the pension plan; the Sheriff's Office matches with 4.39 percent, and the state matches 2.79 percent.

Miner has earned a total of about $735,000 in the past five years by working overtime, compared with a base salary of about $300,000. Dorsch made a total of about $708,000 in the same period with the same base salary.

"The only issue, the biggest issue is that they're working these extra hours," Urquhart said.

"The outrageous salaries are one thing, but they've earned them."

Sharon Pian Chan: 206-464-2958 or schan@seattletimes.com

Copyright © 2005 The Seattle Times Company

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