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Willmar to end early retirement program

WILLMAR — The city employees who were eligible to take advantage of Willmar's now discontinued early retirement program still have a chance to receive the health insurance benefit the program offered — if they formally notify city administration by March 31 that they plan to retire by July 1.

The program offered employees who have worked for the city for at least 20 years one year of health insurance coverage for every three years they worked if they decided to retire prior to being Medicare eligible. The insurance benefit would go until the retiree could join Medicare or until the years earned ran out, whichever came first.

The Willmar City Council decided Monday to end the program for all on July 1, including those 31 already eligible.

In December the council had cut off eligibility for everyone not already eligible, and in 2017, the council had ruled that all employees hired after Dec. 31, 2017, would not be able to take advantage of the program.

Monday's vote was 5 to 2. Councilors Julie Asmus and Shawn Mueske voted against the measure, while Councilor Andrew Plowman abstained. There was no council discussion prior to the vote, though the council has spoken about the program at length during past meetings.

While there are 31 employees currently eligible for the early retirement program, only 14 of them are within five years of a traditional retirement age. Five of those 14 are department heads or supervisors.

The city has $1.05 million saved to cover its liability if all 31 employees would suddenly decide to retire.

The funds to cover the health insurance of those already retired is in another account and can not be touched for other purposes.

City Human Resources Director Samantha Beckman had offered the council three other phase-out schedules for the program, which would have allowed more eligible employees to take advantage before it was ended. One schedule kept the program going until 2035, the second until 2029 and under the third option, the program would have ended in 2023. However, the council decided the time had come to end the program completely.

Mayor Marv Calvin thanked Beckman for her hours of work on this issue, one that was not popular with many city staff.

"I know this has been very draining on you. I really appreciate your professionalism," Calvin said. "This is a very, very tough thing to carry as a new HR director. You have done a stellar job."