Miami Beach commissioners vote to help themselves get pensions. Here’s who could benefit

·4 min read
SAM NAVARRO/Special for the Miami Herald

Miami Beach commissioners voted Friday to allow themselves to receive pensions if they serve more than two years in office, when previously they would have had to be reelected to be eligible.

Five of the city’s seven elected officials are not yet vested under the plan and could benefit from the change that now requires spending more than half of a four-year term in office. The previous rules required commissioners to serve at least five years, so they would have to be reelected to qualify.

One of the officials who could benefit is the legislation’s sponsor, David Richardson, who confirmed Friday that he does not intend to run for a second commission term and will instead run for an unspecified countywide office.

“I don’t think that we should have elected officials who are even considering a motivation to run for reelection just because they’re not going to get [a pension] if they don’t run for reelection,” Richardson told the Miami Herald. “That’s an equity issue for me.”

Commissioners Laura Dominguez, Alex Fernandez, Kristen Rosen Gonzalez and Steven Meiner could also benefit. Mayor Dan Gelber and Commissioner Ricky Arriola, both of whom are term-limited in November, are already vested.

Meiner and Fernandez voted against the item, citing ethical concerns.

“I’m happy to get the pension, but at the same time, I guess I feel uncomfortable voting for my own pension,” Meiner said.

Fernandez echoed that sentiment.

“I don’t feel comfortable voting on this for myself,” he said.

Others said they believe it’s a fair benefit for the work they do.

“From the time that we wake up in the morning until the time that we go to sleep, I’m spending time for the city,” said Rosen Gonzalez, a commissioner from 2015 to 2018 who was elected again in 2021. “We are here for you, and we need the community to be here for us moving forward.”

Under the city’s retirement plan, elected officials are eligible to receive lifetime monthly payments once they leave office and are 62 years old.

The payment amounts, calculated as a percentage of their salary and weighted depending on how long they served in office, come to approximately $500 per month for officials who served four years and around $1,000 per month for those who served eight years.

Rosen Gonzalez said she was supporting the change in part because she doesn’t think Miami Beach elected officials are fairly compensated.

The city charter in 1996 set salaries for commissioners and the mayor at $6,000 and $10,000, respectively, though that does not include monthly stipends and car allowances. Including those benefits, compensation for commissioners is around $39,000 per year and $40,000 for the mayor.

The city’s elected officials often stay in their professions. Gelber is a practicing lawyer. Meiner is a lawyer who works for the U.S. Securities and Exchange Commission.

Miami Beach voters rejected proposed raises for elected officials in both 2018 and 2019. The 2019 referendum proposed increasing the base salary to around $45,000 for commissioners and $75,000 for the mayor.

Miami Beach United, a resident advocacy group, opposed the change at Friday’s meeting, saying compensation related to elected officials should be decided by voters.

“Usually these increases require voter approval,” resident Gayle Durham said at the meeting on behalf of the group. “Somehow, there’s a loophole and maybe we should close this loophole.”

The legislation passed Friday also changes the city’s pension rules for all city employees, as well as elected officials, to allow their service time to accrue if they leave the city and return at a later date.

Previously, employees would go back to square one for vesting purposes if they didn’t vest during their initial stint with the city.

The change will help a number of city workers, and could also benefit former elected officials who served less than five consecutive years — including November mayoral candidates Michael Gongora and Michael Grieco.

The legislation will have a limited impact relative to the approximately $29 million in retirement plan contributions the city expects to make this fiscal year.

It will add about $117,000 to the city’s costs this year, according to an actuarial analysis.