SALISBURY — The crowd of outraged town officials who want out of the embattled Essex Regional Retirement Board is growing steadily, and more are expected to make their decisions known this week.
Last week, four boards of selectmen — Rowley, Hamilton, Ipswich and Manchester — voted to ask the retirement board to transfer their investments to the state system, sending a message to the Essex County board to get out of the investment business. Salisbury's selectmen will tonight discuss whether their town will pull out.
The five-member board oversees the pensions of employees in 19 towns and six school districts, including Groveland, Merrimac, Newbury, Rowley, Salisbury, Triton Regional School District and Pentucket Regional School District. It saw its investments nosedive in 2008, losing 33 percent.
That was the worst performance of any retirement board in the state, but it's not the only reason local leaders are giving for wanting the board to transfer its assets to the state Pension Reserves Investment Trust.
The board's employees were given 5.8 percent raises this year, while many member communities have frozen town employees' wages or laid off workers. In other controversial moves, the board also pushed to reclassify emergency dispatchers and public works employees, allowing them to retire years earlier and costing the towns more money.
A special retirement annuity the board voted Executive Director Tim Bassett would have taken $500,000 from the fund to pay him another $40,000 annual pension starting on his 65th birthday. Bassett, a 62-year old retired Lynn legislator, is already collecting a $41,000 pension, a $132,000 salary from the ERRB and a salary as a lobbyist.
Although Bassett announced recently he's turned down the annuity, it's another example of a lucrative perk approved by the ERRB, but funded by communities who have no chance to consider it, Salisbury Town Manager Neil Harrington said.
In an e-mail dated June 9, the retirement board's CEO, Lilli Gilligan, asked that member communities decide by June 29 whether they want the board to transfer its investments to the investment trust, which manages the pension investments of state employees.
Newbury Town Manager Chuck Kostro said his town will soon be deciding whether to stay in the Essex Regional Retirement Board or opt out.
"We are weighing the information that has been passed along and will make a decision when it is time to make a decision," Kostro said, noting it could be weeks or months. "It's more complicated a question than if we can just leave the system. It is something we will be working on and it could take several weeks or several months."
Asked whether it is concerning to him local communities have opted out of the system in droves, Kostro said he hopes to evaluate the information before making a decision whether Newbury will stay in the agreement.
In Rowley, selectmen Chairman Dave Petersen said he is hoping the recent publicity of the Essex Regional Retirement Board spurs them to make changes in how they do business.
"We aren't going out on our own, but we want the funds to be put in the state system," Petersen said. "We are looking for more accountability from the board and more communication from them to the boards of selectmen in the various towns."
Petersen said the recent press surrounding the board has caused cities and towns to band together and make the board more accountable.
"We have to come up with the funds, so they should at least ask our input," Petersen said. "They have been kind of working below the radar for all these years and all of a sudden all this comes out."
Petersen said he hopes the money is put into the state system and invested in a way to get better returns.
"We just want to get the most for our money," Petersen said. "We look to the board to have money invested in a manner they are getting the best return. They need to be a great deal more accountable to the selectmen so we all know what's going on."
Chairman Larry Swartz said Wenham selectmen will discuss the situation at their June 23 meeting.
Ipswich Town Manager Bob Markel said the mood of the selectmen was that the change should be made as soon as possible.
It's unclear if the member communities can force the retirement board to turn over its investments or how that could be done.
"The difficulty is that retirement law is so old, I don't know whether we're looking for a simple majority or a weighted majority," Manchester Town Administrator Wayne Melville said.