FORT SMITH — Franklin County Judge Joe Powell, just re-elected in November, hopes to finish his two-year term in office as an appointee even after he complies with a requirement to retire next month.
Under the state’s Deferred Option Retirement Plan, eligible state employees may collect pension benefits in an interest-bearing account while continuing to work, but the program has time limits. For enrollees within the Arkansas Public Employees Retirement System, DROP participation is limited to seven years, at the end of which they must retire.
Powell, who has served as county judge since January 1977 and was re-elected in November to serve through 2014, enrolled in DROP in 2006 when he became eligible based on 28 years of public service. He must retire by March 1.
Powell said he ran for re-election in 2012 intending the current two-year term to be his last.
"I mistakenly thought that I could complete my 2013-2014 term of office because the continued service period expired within my term," Powell wrote in an open letter.
As it turned out, he learned he must retire and remain out of public employment for 90 days.
But Powell made clear in his letter that he wants to finish out his term.
Under Arkansas law, the Franklin County Quorum Court must appoint someone to complete the county judge’s unexpired term, but the person appointed cannot run for office in the next election.
Powell mentioned this point in his letter and proposed that he himself be appointed to fill the seat he must vacate.
"Those citizens who wish to run for the office would have an open seat with no incumbent to contest the 2014 race," he wrote, adding that "as outgoing judge I could work with whomever the people elect to see that a smooth transition occurs with the new administration."
An official in the county judge’s office said Powell was unavailable and left word that he didn’t want to comment.
Jay Wills, APERS attorney, said DROP rules vary somewhat by department and have changed over the years. Some rule changes are prospective rather than retroactive.
"The idea is, you don’t want to change the rules for people who have already played the game," he said.
Act 38 of 2011 expressly prohibits APERS DROP enrollees from returning to work under any state retirement plan after retiring, but it applies only to people who enrolled in DROP after March 1, 2012.
Wills said Powell enrolled long before that date and so he remains eligible to serve as an appointed county judge after he takes a 90-day break. The service break has also changed and gotten longer under the law, but Powell’s enrollment predates those changes as well.
Although Powell may serve as an appointee and draw a paycheck after retiring, he will no longer be in the retirement program, Wills said.
Wanda Freeman writes for the Times Record in Fort Smith