ex-officials want boost to their state pensions, too
Bulger ruling sparks requests for thousands
By Matt Carroll, Globe Staff
Sunday, December 17, 2006
A number of prominent retired state officials have quietly
requested boosts in their state pensions in recent weeks, aiming
to capitalize on former University of Massachusetts president
William M. Bulger's successful legal battle to increase his
pension by $17,000 last month.
The nine retired officials, including former House speaker David
Bartley and Marie Parente, a 26-year state representative, are
seeking pension boosts of anywhere from a few thousand dollars
to about $14,000 annually, according to calculations by the
Globe. If they prevail, state Treasurer Timothy P. Cahill said,
they could trigger a flood of similar requests, at potentially
significant cost to the state.
Last month, Bulger won a significant victory after a three-year
legal fight, during which he argued that his pension should be
calculated not just on the basis of his salary, but on his
broader compensation package, including a $29,000 annual housing
allowance and a $19,000 annuity. State employees receive
pensions of up to 80 percent of the average of their top three
The state's Supreme Judicial Court said Bulger could include the
housing allowance but not the annuity, increasing his pension to
$196,000. Now, the other former officials are asking the state
retirement board to include a range of other benefits in their
compensation. In addition to housing allowances, they want
travel reimbursements, office stipends, a state car, and even a
state parking space to be included in their pension calculation.
"If Billy Bulger is going to get it, I should get it, too," said
Peter M. Mitchell, a retired president of Massachusetts Maritime
Academy who receives a $39,000 annual pension. Like Bulger,
Mitchell is seeking to include his $15,000 annual housing
Bartley, who was president of Holyoke Community College after
leaving the Legislature, is also seeking to add his housing
allowance, which was $18,000 a year, to his compensation base.
That would mean a jump in his pension from $137,566 a year to
about $152,000. He declined to comment for this article.
Bartley, who retired in 2004, would also be eligible for
retroactive payments, as would the others.
Parente said money she received for travel, office expenses, and
the value of a State House parking space should be included in
her pension, which would boost it by about $8,000 to an expected
"I feel I earned my retirement," said Parente, who worked in the
public sector for about 35 years and is leaving the Legislature
in January after losing her bid for reelection this fall.
The five-member state retirement board, chaired by Cahill, is
expected to rule on the requests in the coming months. But they
may ultimately be decided by the courts as employees appeal, as
Bulger did, to seek clarification of what can legally be
included as compensation.
The state law regarding public employee pensions states that a
pension should be based on "salary, wages, or other compensation
in whatever form, lawfully determined for the individual service
of the employee by the employing authority," but should not
include bonuses, overtime, or severance pay.
In the Bulger case, the SJC ruled that his housing allowance
should be counted as compensation because the trustees who
renegotiated his contract in 1998 made it clear that they were
using the housing allowance to enhance Bulger's overall
financial compensation, even though they knew Bulger intended to
reside at his longtime home in South Boston rather than spend
the money on housing.
"According to the chairperson of the trustees who was
responsible for negotiating Bulger's compensation package in
1998, the trustees felt at that time that Bulger had done an
outstanding job as university president and considered Bulger's
acceptance of a housing allowance as an important enhancement of
his compensation package that would motivate his interest in the
presidency for an additional five-year term," the decision
Cahill, who fought the Bulger challenge, said he worries it has
opened a Pandora's box that could lead to thousands of state
employees seeking pension increases.
Compensation should be defined as pay alone, said Cahill. The
Bulger ruling made the definition far murkier.
"Who knows?" Cahill said. "It could open the door for virtually
Others are more skeptical. Alden Bianchi, a lawyer who is
co-chairman of a Boston Bar Association committee on pensions,
said the question to be decided is how broadly interpreted the
Bulger case will be. While Bianchi does not believe the ruling
would necessarily open wide the floodgates, he said "it invites
challenges on other types of expenses."
The state will have to aggressively contest employees' appeals
to limit the ruling's impact, he said.
Michael Sacco, an attorney for retirement boards across the
state, said he does not expect that many retirees, other than
college presidents with housing allowances, would be able to
boost their pensions by claiming extra compensation.
"There may be a flood of claims, but I don't see retirement
boards, or the administrative agencies that review claims, or
the courts embracing all these extraneous benefits and turning
them into regular compensations," Sacco said.
Cahill would like to see legislation enacted that would more
clearly define compensation. But he acknowledged it would be
hard -- given requests like Parente's -- to ask the Legislature
to more tightly restrict a law that would ultimately apply to
many of its own members.
"It is going to be an uphill fight," said Cahill.
Because he has no way of knowing how many people potentially
could seek to raise their pensions, Cahill declined to speculate
on the ultimate financial impact on the retirement fund, which
has about $18 billion in assets, 51,000 retirees, and 82,000
Pensions are determined by age, years of service, and pay.
Employees pay from 5 to 9 percent of their salary to help fund
their retirement. State employees do not receive Social
Security for their work in the public sector.
Thomas R. Kiley, Bulger's attorney, argued that the ruling was
narrow in scope and will ultimately apply to only a handful of
The average state pension is about $23,400. The median is about
Parente, who is 78, said she paid taxes on her expenses as
income, so they should be included as part of her pension
"I don't think it's fair" if after she counted it as income the
state now says it shouldn't be included when figuring her
pension, said Parente.
She received between $3,000 and $4,000 annually in travel money,
known as per diem pay, which covers a legislator's commuting
expenses from the district to Boston. And she also was given
$7,200 for office expenses. She also claimed $1,260 in income
each year as the value of a State House parking spot.
Parente said she was advised by her accountant to pay taxes on
the additional compensation, including the parking spot, and
said she has a memo from the state directing legislators to
declare the parking space as income.
Based on an approximate annual value of $10,000 for the items,
the money would increase her pension about $8,000.
Gail E. Carberry, 58, president at Quinsigamond Community
College, wants the board to figure in her $15,000 housing
allowance, which would eventually add $12,000 to her pension
when she retires. Carberry, who earns about $105,000 a year,
said has no intention of retiring soon.
"I would not have taken the Commonwealth to court, as did Mr.
Bulger," she said. "On the other hand, if the benefit is
equally payable to presidents throughout the system, neither do
I want to be on the nonreceiving end."
Others who filed for pension increases include Bryan Blanchard,
former president of Berkshire Community College; Eileen Farley,
former president of Bristol Community College; Thomas N.
George, a former state legislator; Maurice O'Shea, former
interim president of Bunker Hill Community College; and Andrew
Scibelli, former president of Springfield Technical Community
Matt Carroll can be reached