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3 top county hires earn public pensions; Administration calls high compensation a reality of appointing best candidates

John C. Loffredo spent a long career working under a who's who of local politicians: Joel Giambra. Dennis Gorski. Jimmy Griffin. Frank A. Sedita. Stanley Makowski.

So when Loffredo emerged from retirement this month for a third go-around as Erie County's commissioner of public works, he brought with him years of public sector experience.

He also brings a public pension of $64,589.

That pay, combined with Loffredo's $118,402 annual salary, will put his public compensation this year at $182,740. That's more than the salary of the highest paid employee currently on the county payroll -- outgoing Health Commissioner Dr. Anthony Billittier IV.

And he's not the only top-level appointee in County Executive Mark C. Poloncarz's administration already earning a public pension. Two other high-level commissioners are returning from retirement.

Deputy County Executive Richard M. Tobe and Deputy Commissioner of Highways David A. Boehm are eligible to collect a portion of their pensions while earning county salaries.

This is the reality of hiring the best candidates for the job in a short time frame, according to the Poloncarz administration.

But it also raises a question: Is it essential to pay full salaries to lure them back to county government work when they're already earning pensions?

"In the private sector, and I think in the more imaginative government sector, you look at hiring retirees because they're cheaper," said E.J. McMahon, senior fellow at the Empire Center for New York State Policy. "The appeal of hiring retired government workers should be that you can pay them less."

Under state law, a retiree who is younger than 65 is eligible to receive only a portion of a public pension while earning a public salary of more than $30,000. To receive the rest, the county must get a waiver from the state's Civil Service Commission.

Tobe, 63, will earn $107,810 as deputy county executive. He will be eligible to collect about a third of the $46,194 pension he earned in various county and city economic development jobs he held before rejoining county government.

He said he doesn't plan to keep that money.

The deputy county executive will donate the portion of the pension he does receive to charity while he's earning a county salary and will not seek special permission from the state to collect his full pension, said Peter Anderson, a spokesman for Poloncarz.

Poloncarz and Tobe declined, through Anderson, to be interviewed for this story.

Loffredo, the new public works commissioner, doesn't need special permission to collect his full pension. At 76, he is eligible under state law to receive his entire pension and salary without a waiver from the Civil Service Commission.

"His pension, he was going to get no matter what," Anderson said. "And that position that he is now in, somebody was going to be drawing that salary. If not Mr. Loffredo, than someone else."

The position of public works commissioner was difficult to fill at its $118,402 salary because of the requirement that the commissioner be a licensed professional engineer, said Timothy C. Callan, who served as executive director of Poloncarz's transition team and who is now the county's deputy budget director.

"The salary scale the county has for attracting PE's from other layers of government and the private sector is such that we found, in the transition team process, that it was incredibly difficult to recruit," Callan said.

The public works commissioner oversees more than 300 county employees and the divisions of buildings and grounds, highways, weights and measures, and fleet services.

Loffredo already has years of experience in the job. He served as public works commissioner for former County Executive Dennis Gorski for 12 years and returned again for two years under former County Executive Joel Giambra. Loffredo also worked as acting city engineer and associate city engineer between 1964 and 1988, according to prior news stories.

He brings another unusual perspective to the job, Callan said. He took part in talks with the Buffalo Bills in 1997 when Gorski was renegotiating the team's stadium lease.

The lease expires again next year, and negotiations are expected to begin later this year.

"John was kind enough to assist us in serving as public works commissioner," Callan said. "And he'll be playing a key role with Mr. Tobe and the county executive with the Bills negotiations process."

There is one thing, however, Loffredo didn't bring to the job: an active professional engineering license. Loffredo is in the process of having his license reactivated, a process he said would take a few days, Anderson said.

"He was not actively working," Anderson said, "so he did not have the license active, which the county knew."

It remains unclear how much pension Boehm, who is 58, will collect while he's back on the county payroll as deputy commissioner of highways.

Boehm retired from the county in 2009 as a senior highway maintenance engineer. After earning between $117,876 and $134,948 in his final three years on the job, he retired with an annual pension of $86,408, according to state records.

In his new job, Boehm will make $75,252 -- less than the $99,850 salary that the former deputy commissioner, Gary Zawodzinski, made.

Boehm is eligible to receive a portion of his public pension and will need special permission to collect the rest.

Anderson could not say whether the county planned to seek a waiver from the state's Civil Service Commission to allow Boehm to receive his full pension. "Mr. Boehm's situation is still in transition," Anderson said.

Neither Boehm nor Loffredo was available for interviews for this story, Anderson said.

Poloncarz, when he sought to fill key roles in his administration, "had no intention to grant waivers," Anderson said.

"Waivers are not good for taxpayers," Anderson said Poloncarz told him. "What he did want to do is hire the best possible people for these positions, and he needed qualified people as soon as possible."