Politics & Government

City argues that Chief Putney’s retirement arrangement is legal, asks state to allow it

The city of Charlotte on Wednesday asked the state Treasurer to reconsider his position on Charlotte-Mecklenburg Police Chief Kerr Putney’s plans to retire at the end of the year and return to the post two months later.

The city argues that nothing in state law or the state retirement system prohibits the arrangement as long as he returns as a temporary employee.

Putney’s retirement plans have been in limbo since early October over a dispute involving North Carolina pension law.

The city announced that Putney would retire at the end of the year and return as chief two months later, staying through the Republican National Convention in August.

But a state law prohibits a government employee from collecting a retirement pension with the “intent or agreement, expressed or implied, to return to service.”

Treasurer Dale Folwell, who oversees the pension system, has maintained that that’s “totally in violation of the law that’s been on the books for decades.”

“We are standing firm with every decision on matters of this type that have ever been made by every Treasurer of North Carolina since this plan has been in existence,” Folwell told the Observer Wednesday.

He has said the issue is whether an employee has an agreement, “expressed or implied,” to come back, regardless of whether it’s temporary. He said he was enforcing pension rules put forth by the Internal Revenue Service.

But the city disagreed.

It released an independent legal opinion from the law firm of Poyner Spruill that says under state law, the “no intent or agreement . . . to return to service” provision, “does not apply to the City’s plan to rehire Chief Putney for a limited term.”

In a letter to the Treasurer’s office, City Attorney Patrick Baker defended Putney’s plan and said he’s received “substantial input and advice from the (Treasurer’s) staff who were well aware of his objectives.”

“At no point in time prior to the October 7 retirement announcement was he made aware that this future temporary employment arrangement could not be discussed, contemplated or agreed to prior to his retirement date,” Baker wrote. “It is our sincere hope and desire that you will reconsider your decision on Chief Putney’s announced retirement plans as we feel strongly that it is in compliance with all applicable (pension) provisions, state law and IRS Codes. “

Folwell said he’s standing firm and still waiting for the city to provide copies of its policies on “hire-backs.”

Chris Kopp, a former CMPD officer and spokesman for the Fraternal Order of Police, has told the Observer that the department has had a “hire-back” program for several years. Under the program, former officers retire and return after 30 days and continue to work in the same or other capacities.

Kopp said CMPD has made such arrangements before an officer actually retires, which is what Folwell contends is illegal.

“The ability to retire is not in question here, it’s the intent to return to work,” Folwell said Wednesday. “It would be careless of us to put in jeopardy the tax-except status of a plan ... that’s been in place for decades.”

Jim Morrill, who grew up near Chicago, covers state and local politics. He’s worked at the Observer since 1981 and taught courses on North Carolina politics at UNC Charlotte and Davidson College.