Philadelphia City Council's 3 retiring members declined controversial DROP program

Philadelphia City Hall.
Photo credit Holli Stephens/KYW Newsradio
PHILADELPHIA (KYW Newsradio) — Bill Greenlee, Jannie Blackwell and Blondell Reynolds Brown will retire from Philadelphia City Council at the end of this term and none of them will take a payment from the controversial Deferred Retirement Option Program (DROP), though they are among the few remaining Philadelphia elected officials who would qualify.

"I said early on, when I ran for office, that I would not take DROP," Greenlee said. "Personally, I don't think that was the original intention, for elected officials." 

Indeed, it was not, said Ben Hayllar, then-Mayor Ed Rendell's finance director, who helped set up the program in 1999.

DROP was intended to give long-time employees an incentive to announce their retirement plans early, Hayllar said, thus allowing a period for planning and transition. Many cities were setting up such programs at the time, as baby boom employees were reaching retirement age. 

It allows employees to choose a retirement date up to four years in advance and have their pension contributions from that point on put in a separate, interest-bearing account. They receive the entire amount in that account in a lump sum when they leave government.

"It was never intended for elected officials and it was wrong (for them to take it)," said Hayllar. 

Nonetheless, take it they did. In fact, several former officials figured out a loophole that allowed them to join the program between elections and, if re-elected, retire for a day, collect their lump sum payment, and return to office. 

That was blamed, in part, for the ballooning cost of the program. It was intended to be revenue neutral, but the Pennsylvania Intergovernmental Cooperation Agency (PICA) estimates it cost the city $237 million from 1999 to 2015. 

Voter backlash, though, was unforgiving. Most of those who took the payments were either voted out or retired rather than face defeat.

That prompted pledges such as Greenlee's, never to enter DROP. He is forgoing a payment roughly estimated at $550,192. 

He has no regrets.

"I was here a long time. My pension will be okay," he said. "I'm not going to complain."  

Greenlee was a city employee for 25 years before getting elected to council. His estimated pension payments will be $11,073 a month. Jannie Blackwell, also formerly an employee and a councilmember for six terms, will receive an estimated $10,860 monthly. 

Blondell Reynolds Brown would receive $8,465 a month but multiple sources say she is looking for a job in the Kenney administration rather than immediately retiring. That would allow her to enroll in DROP.

She declined to comment on that.

Blackwell said she didn't expect to be retiring — she lost her bid for a seventh term in the May primary. Still, she could have enrolled then and accumulated four months worth of payments, but she said she didn't think about it.

Greenlee, Blackwell and Reynolds Brown all emphasized they're not judging others who would enroll in DROP.

At this point, there are a dwindling number who would qualify. In 2010, council passed a bill eliminating the option for any official elected after 2008. That leaves just four council members — Brian O'Neill, Curtis Jones, Maria Quinones-Sanchez and Council President Darrell Clarke — with the option. 

Jones and Quinones-Sanchez have pledged not to take it. 

Mayor Jim Kenney would also be eligible but he, too, has pledged not to take it. Administration officials say he would like to eliminate DROP but considers it a losing fight as it's very popular with the municipal unions. 

In fact, former AFSCME DC47 president Fred Wright declined to run for re-election last month because of intense criticism of a compromise he made with the administration that lowered DROP payments to his members.