A generous retirement plan can have a downside.
About 210 of the City of Dothan’s approximately 965 full-time employees are eligible to retire within the next three years.
While not all those workers will leave, Dothan leaders are finding ways to minimize the loss of experience and talent if they do.
The Dothan City Commission voted 5-2 in June 2004 to join the Retirement Systems of Alabama (RSA). Supporters of the move said it would increase benefits for city employees and be a recruitment tool for future hires.
It was also a way to link to what was then a booming pension fund administered by the RSA. At the time, the city pension fund was underfunded by $49 million.
Since 2004, the city has been making catch-up payments to cover its annual pension obligation, which grew because of the increased benefits offered by the state plan and the economic recession.
City employees who started work before Jan. 1, 2013, are eligible to retire with 25 years of service.
Some stay on the job, drawing a city paycheck while the monthly amount they’ll collect when they retire continues to rise.
But some quit their municipal job to work someplace else.
“Some employees do have an opportunity to transition into a brand new career, and most of those employees that retire that’s what they do,” Personnel Director Delvick McKay said.
The downside for the city is that exiting employees take experience and knowledge with them. It can leave some departments in a lurch.
“The last two or three years we’ve had roughly 150 to 200 to retire,” McKay said.
That’s why succession planning has been a citywide focus over the last five years.
“We knew we were going to have these kinds of retirements and so we’ve created positions, we’ve given training,” the personnel director said.
Tiered positions, from assistant directors to junior level, help transfer knowledge. Employees are being cross-trained and certified for some positions to retain some of the expertise before people leave.
“You will see these things happening in most major corporations,” McKay said. “The city is doing it as well.”
Not all employees leave when their 25 years are done. Some recognize the value of the diverse package of benefits programs the city offers, from paid leave plans to group health, life and dental insurance plans.
Others love what they do.
Wayne McKinnon, E911 addressing agent, started as a drafter out of college. The city provided a stable job with benefits that was close to his hometown.
When he started 39 years ago, there was only one person doing the job he does now. If that person was out, the work went undone.
Now two other employees are trained to perform the job, so when McKinnon is out or when he retires in a few years they can handle the work.
Water Distribution System Supervisor James Stewart didn’t know much about jobs with the city other than his family members who worked there.
“One of my uncles said, hey, you should put in an application at the city. And I happened to put it in on the last day that a maintenance worker position was open, and I happened to get it,” Stewart said.
From that point forward he wanted to be a fireman, but that didn’t work out. He came back to the water department, went to Wallace Community College for water and wastewater technology management, then moved up through the ranks.
Leisure Services Director Elston Jones saw a Dothan job announcement posted at the placement office when he finished college. He started as a recreation leader, an entry level position, and was promoted four times through the ranks to director of the department.
Jones had no family here, but once he got promoted the first time, he stopped looking for other work and decided to make Dothan his home.
“I had no indication at that time that I would be here for 39 years, but it’s been a good 39 years,” Jones said. “The City of Dothan has been a good place to work and a good place to live.”
Public Works Director Charles Metzger graduated from the University of South Alabama in civil engineering in 1983. He worked with the City of Mobile in traffic engineering when he was in school, and his brother told him they were looking for a traffic engineer in Dothan.
He applied for the job and then-City Engineer Gary Martin gave him a chance, hiring Metzger as Dothan’s first traffic engineer.
“I didn’t really have a plan to stay here,” he said. He grew with the job, moving from traffic engineer to assistant public works director to public works director.
McKay said the top reasons people stay beyond 25 years is job security and passion for the work.
“I think they really do love the jobs that they do here with the city,” McKay said.
Metzger said he likes to see projects he’s worked on completed, from the widening of Honeysuckle Road and Denton Road to the Ross Clark Circle improvements that the state’s doing.
“One of our tasks, especially for department heads, is trying to train up people so you do have good people,” he said.
He feels good about where Public Works is now, from the traffic engineer who’s been hired to the street manager and engineering services director, people in their 30s and 40s.
“Anytime you lose the knowledge that anybody in this room has, it’s tough to replace,” Metzger said. “That’s why you’ve got to make sure that you’ve got people coming along and progressing so they can.”
He said when previous Public Works Director Jerry Corbin retired, the city lost a lot of knowledge acquired over time.
“I always said it would be great if you could just download people’s brains, just dump it into a hard drive so you had all that stuff when they leave, but it doesn’t work like that,” Metzger said.
“The city is going keep going after we’re all gone, it’s not going to grind to a halt on any one person,” he said. “It’s just important for us to try to make sure there are good people in place.”
McKay said many former city employees enticed to another workplace with a large salary or something on the front end that seemed appealing at the time have tried to come back.
Metzger said all departments have to work together to accomplish what needs to be done. He credits city leaders with making conditions good for employees.
“I think (former City Manager) Mike West probably did as good a job or better than any of the previous city managers about trying to build a team to work together,” he said.
He thinks Dothan has a great city commission. “It’s great when they support the employees and make the employees feel good about their jobs. That can really help or really hurt,” he said.
McKay said leaders trust professionals who know what they’re doing.
“I think that’s been a big plus with the elected officials and the city management in the past, that you hire great people, you trust their expertise and you support them where they need to be supported,” he said.
The personnel director said every department plays a part in providing service to the community.
“Certainly teamwork is key for us to be able to deliver that level of service that the public expects,” he said.