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Reality Check: Buncombe County has paid the state $540,000+ for pension spiking

Buncombe County has received five pension spiking invoices from the state (Courtesy: WLOS)

Buncombe County has written several six-figure checks to the state to cover pensions of high-wage employees, including a payment made as recently as Jan. 1 for a retirement.

The county started making payments in 2015, when a law went into effect to stop what's called pension spiking. Pension spiking is when high earners get raises right before retirement, which then boosts their pensions. The law only applies to employees in the state or local government retirement system who make $100,000 or more.

Taxpayers fund the county's employees' salaries, and now they're also helping fund some Buncombe County employees' retirement spikes.

"Not in all cases, but in most cases, it's people in power, or know people in power, who are able to adjust their final four years of income, which is what the ultimate pension benefit is based on," North Carolina Treasurer Dale Folwell said.

This is the list of publicly funded employers the Treasury Department has billed:

A News13 analysis of the document counted 140 invoices. No employer was billed more times than Buncombe County. UNC Chapel Hill, the Department of Public Safety, the UNC Health Care System and Buncombe County have all been billed five times.

"We're not out to tell people how to run their local governments. We're just saying, if you do something at the local level that results in a pension spike, we're going to send you a bill for that," Folwell said in a Skype interview.

The Treasury Department explained the point of the law is so employers like Hendersonville and Henderson County are not absorbing a liability created by another employer.

The state describes a pension spike as, "a substantial increase in compensation that results in unusually high liabilities to the North Carolina Retirement Systems." So, instead of the whole state paying for this liability, the employer gets billed. Buncombe County has been paying.

The first bill Buncombe County received was for $138,807.73 for a retirement on March 1, 2015. Personnel records show that is the date former finance director Donna Clark's retirement began. However, a treasury spokesperson said the department cannot reveal which employees triggered the pension spiking invoice.

The next two Buncombe County payments totaled more than $121,000 for retirements on Jan. 1, 2016, and Sept. 1, 2016. News13 made a public record request for Buncombe County to provide a list of employees who retired on those dates and made six figures.

The fourth bill Buncombe County received was July 1, 2017. That is the date of former tax director Gary Robert's retirement. It it also the date of former county manager Wanda Greene's retirement. The county paid $163,282.57.

For a retirement on Jan. 1, the county paid $121,432.87. Jan. 1 was the date assistant county manager and planning director Jon Creighton retired.

To date, the county has paid the Treasury Department $544,537.38 for pension spikes.

“Generally, we’re talking about a visible winner, somebody who gets a massive bump in their pension benefit for the rest of their life, but the invisible losers are all the other people in the pension plan who didn’t know this was going on," Folwell said.

A county spokesperson said it's not public information to detail which former employees triggered pension spike bills. The Treasury Department said it gives each employer a monthly report, listing which employees would create a pension spike invoice if they retired this year.

The county spokesperson said the county plans for these pension spike payments and budgets for them.

(Note: In the video story we miscalculated the total Buncombe County paid as $546,537.38 instead of $544,537.38)

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