The current city attorney rejects the request of his predecessor, James Palermo, who never enrolled.
By DAVID KARP, Times Staff Writer
© St. Petersburg Times, published April 16, 2003
TAMPA -- Former City Attorney James Palermo still wants a pension.
On his last day in office, Palermotried one more time to get a pension for his 36 years of work, even though he had never enrolled in the city's plan.
New City Attorney Fred Karl had an answer for his predecessor Tuesday: No.
In a letter, Karl told Palermo that he wasn't entitled to a city pension.
He also rejected a legal opinion issued by an attorney Palermo had hired a month before he left the city. Palermo cited the March 12 legal opinion to assert that he should get a pension.
The pension board didn't agree, and sought an opinion from another lawyer, someone outside Hillsborough County.
But Karl told the pension board another opinion would not be needed. He ruled against Palermo, refusing to adopt the opinion from Karen Prevatt, a lawyer at Shumaker, Loop & Kendrick, who had worked with Palermo as an assistant city attorney in the 1970s.
"It is kind of a harsh ruling, but it's the law as far as I am concerned," said Karl, an ex-state Supreme Court justice.
Palermo, 65, said he had earned his pension after years of hard work.
"Thirty-six years: That is worth something," Palermo said Tuesday. "Obviously there are some people who think it's worth nothing."
During former Mayor Dick Greco's term, the Legislature was asked four times to change state law to allow Palermo to buy into the pension system. Each time the bills failed.
The bill would have given Palermo a $43,000 annual pension for the rest of his life after he paid the $95,000 in contributions plus interest he would have paid had he enrolled in the plan.
Palermo, who started working for the city in 1967, had several chances to buy into the pension system. But each time he declined.
In 1967, Palermo didn't join the plan because he didn't think he would be employed by the city long enough to qualify. Mayors could serve a maximum of eight years, and it took 10 years to become vested. Back then, new mayors routinely replaced the city's legal staff.
But Palermo was never replaced. In 1981, he said, he couldn't afford to join. In 1986, former Mayor Sandy Freedman got a bill passed that would have let Palermo join, but again he declined.
In late January this year, after Greco's last attempt to get Palermo a pension had failed, part-time city attorney Jack Larkin asked to enroll in a city pension called Plan B.
Palermo's employment history was nearly identical to Larkin's, and a ruling on Larkin's case would have created a precedent for Palermo's request.
Because of the conflict, Palermo could not review Larkin's request. He said he took steps to get an impartial ruling, giving the names of three attorneys, including Prevatt, and asking the city accountant to decide.
In her opinion, Prevatt said, Larkin should get a pension because a 1981 law let all Tampa employees join pension plan B, a less generous plan than the one Palermo sought to join.
Larkin said he didn't join because he never got an enrollment form. Palermo says he didn't get an enrollment form for plan B either.
On his last day at work, Palermo wrote the pension board saying that, like Larkin, he should have been in pension plan B since 1981. He cited the legal opinion.
Palermo estimates that plan B would pay him about $28,000 annually for the rest of his life.
Though he was an assistant city attorney in 1981, Palermo said he didn't know he was eligible. "I had no reason to look at that," he said. "I wish I had."
Since leaving City Hall, Palermo has gone into private practice. His biggest client is the DeBartolo Property Group, which also hired Greco as a senior vice president.
Even if Palermo gets his pension, he's not ready to stop working, he said.
"I'm too young to retire," he said.
-- David Karp can be reached at 226-3376 or email@example.com.