A retirement party last year for Ronald Knafla, a Ramsey County sheriff’s deputy commander, had the usual trappings: a congratulatory plaque for the retiree, well wishes from the boss, a crowd of family and friends who cheered his long career in law enforcement.

But the celebration hadn’t even faded from memory before Knafla, who retired that day, took back his old job and title less than four months later — but now with more money.

Knafla’s time away from the office triggered a pension from the state’s retirement plan for public employees, the Public Employees Retirement Association (PERA). Not only was Knafla getting both a salary and pension, but under PERA rules he no longer had to contribute some of his pretax income to the pension system he was benefiting from, meaning his take-home pay had grown as well.

Several members of Sheriff Bob Fletcher’s leadership team are collecting retirement benefits while working a full-time job. Fletcher himself collects a PERA pension on top of his salary, as does Chief Deputy Sheriff Dave Metusalem, a former county undersheriff; two of the three current undersheriffs, former St. Paul Police Chief Bill Finney and former Minneapolis Deputy Police Chief Mike Martin; and Steve Lydon, superintendent of the Adult Detention Center.

It’s unclear how many members of the Sheriff’s Office have similar arrangements, but at least three of the 16 deputy sheriff commanders collect PERA pensions including Knafla, Terry Soukkala, and Richard Clark.

In Clark’s case, retirement was even more short-lived than it was for Knafla.

Clark bid farewell to the daily grind on June 1 before returning to his job only a month later, on July 3. His remarkably brief retirement was just long enough to satisfy the 30-day window necessary to trigger pension payments.

Efforts to reach Knafla and Clark for comment this week were unsuccessful.

Ramsey County Board Chairman Jim McDonough said it was “baffling” that several high-ranking members of the Sheriff’s Office were collecting pensions while working. He said he wasn’t aware of the arrangements until he was notified by the Star Tribune.

“It seems like a pretty good gig for some of these folks,” McDonough said.

Fletcher, who was elected sheriff in 2018 after serving 16 years in the office from 1994 to 2010, defended the practice of his officers taking pension payments while working full time in his office.

“A pension is income earned from a lifetime of contributions,” he said. Those on his leadership team taking pensions are experts in their field who are highly experienced, he said, “and experienced people may have pensions.”

Pension rules

Collecting a pension while working full time is not illegal under the rules set in place by the Legislature when it established the Public Employees Retirement Association Police and Fire Fund in 1959.

Employees must retire for at least 30 days, and they cannot have a written or verbal agreement with their employer about returning later, according to PERA’s rules.

The fund acts somewhat like a 401(k), with members contributing 11.3% of their pretax income to their plan each pay period.

Their employers match that with a contribution worth 16.95% of the employee’s pay. Unlike a 401(k), however, the pension payments continue for the retiree’s lifetime.

In general, PERA pensioners who go back to work in PERA jobs get half their pension payments each month and half delivered roughly two years later in a lump sum, said PERA’s executive director Doug Anderson.

The delayed payment is offset somewhat by the fact that those receiving PERA pensions no longer have to pay into the plan, even if they’re working full time.

McDonough said he was aware that Fletcher had hired a number of retired law enforcement officials to work in his office, including Finney, 71, the former St. Paul police chief who lost a tough sheriff’s race against Fletcher in 2006.

Finney collects a pension of $140,000 a year, about half of which is deferred for later payment since he now earns a salary of $137,000 under Fletcher.

McDonough said high salaries may be part of the problem behind a projected $2.5 million budget deficit for Fletcher’s office this year.

But it’s also been the County Board’s position that Fletcher has hired too many people. The board’s analysis of Fletcher’s first months in office found that he’s hired 45 more regular and temporary employees than have been let go.

The end result is that the Sheriff’s Office payroll climbed from about $1.18 million at the start of 2019 to $1.26 million by early September, according to figures provided by the county.

Fletcher has disputed the county’s numbers, saying that as of Nov. 1 he had whittled the office down from 477 full-time equivalent positions to 449.

“They run off different spreadsheets,” he said, explaining the discrepancy. “It’s disturbing that they have documents that are inaccurate.”

The sheriff said that Clark was pulled out of retirement shortly after he left the office because Fletcher needed someone to help him address the summer’s rising crime problems. It was a coincidence that Clark’s retirement was just long enough to kick-start pension payments, he said.

Soukkala and Clark are “two of the finest crime fighters in Minnesota,” Fletcher said.

Budget dispute

Ramsey County officials this fall imposed financial restrictions on Fletcher’s office, due to increased salary costs that threatened to blow a $2.5 million hole in his budget. The restrictions meant that travel expenses, use of purchasing cards, contracts under $10,000 and business expense reimbursements would face added scrutiny, according to a letter sent to the sheriff.

Fletcher, who took office in January after beating Sheriff Jack Serier last year, said he inherited budget woes and overstaffing from Serier.

He said a new analysis prepared by his office and presented this week to Ramsey County Chief Financial Officer Lee Mehrkens shows that the county made decisions in 2017 and 2018 that have since resulted in underfunding for personnel services.

“We continue to take actions to resolve this, but to assert our office is solely responsible for this year’s deficit is disingenuous,” Metusalem wrote in the letter to Mehrkens.

Fletcher said the underfunding is responsible for about $1.2 million of the expected deficit. The sheriff said he’s taking additional steps to curb spending that will shave the budget deficit to less than $1 million.