Muni judges look to retire, run for re-election

LISBON – Municipal court judges Mark Frost and Melissa Byers-Emmerling are preparing to take advantage of a state law that allows elected officials to retire and continue in office.

Both are up for re-election this year and have filed letters with the Columbiana County Board of Elections announcing their intention to retire Dec. 31. Elections Board Director Adam Booth said elected officials planning to retire while continuing to run for office are required to file notification letters with his office 90 days prior to the primary election in which they are to be a candidate?

The primary election this year is on May 7, and neither Byers-Emmerling, a Democrat, or Frost, a Republican, are opposed.

Both stated their decisions are based on changes in the state Public Employee Retirement System (PERS) made last year by the state legislature, which would penalize them financially if they retired after 2013.

“The Ohio Legislature has made my choice on taking retirement benefits almost a mandatory one,” Frost wrote in his letter to Booth. “They have enacted significant and serious changes in the area of medical insurance premiums and benefits to anyone retiring on or after Jan. 1, 2014, and it also seems that they are considering serious changes to the current benefit formulas.”

Byers-Emmerling noted they are not alone among longtime elected officials and public employees who are opting to retire because of the increased cost of benefits that are coming. “There’s been a number of judges and others in the state of Ohio that are retiring because of the changes,” she said in a phone interview.

They are both paid $114,100, which is set by law, and will continue to receive that amount while receiving pension benefits should they retire. Forty percent of their salary – $52,350 – is paid by the state.

The practice of government employees being able to able to collect a salary and a pension check for doing the same job is commonly known as “double dipping.” There is no additional cost to the county in terms of salary when elected officials “double dip” since the same salary would be paid to whoever holds the position.

In his letter to Booth, Frost acknowledged some find this practice distasteful. “I do not make this decision lightly. I am very aware that there are many folks who are troubled by the practice of drawing PERS benefits while still seeking to be re-elected to an additional term. I am sure that nothing I say could convince these folks to accept the general practice as being right,” he wrote.

Byers-Emmerling indicated she has yet to decide whether to retire, but she had to file the notice with the elections board in order to be eligible to do so this year. “I’m likely to do this. I’m just not a 100 percent,” she said.

Both have worked in local government for 30 or more years, starting as assistant county prosecutors. Frost, 65, has been a county municipal court judge for the past 24 years, while Byers-Emmerling, 57, has served as East Liverpool Municipal Court judge since 1990.