Macon-Bibb ousts HR director, outsources pension administration amid benefits audit


Liz Fabian

The Association of County Commissioners of Georgia will take over Macon-Bibb County’s pension administration and actuarial services on Jan. 1.

Even before Lester Miller was sworn in as mayor, he was taking a close look at Macon-Bibb County’s Human Resources Department.

Nearing the halfway mark of Miller’s first year, human resources director Alisha Duhart has been fired and the county voted this week to outsource its pension and actuarial services.

Alisha Duhart

“I initially sent a letter to the HR director, indicated to them that I was going to place them on probation even before arriving,” Miller recently told the Center for Collaborative Journalism. “There’s no secret to that. (County manager) Dr. Moffett sent the letter out to several positions letting them know that we were going to be watching them very closely because we had received substantial complaints in that area.”

In spring of 2020, an auditor warned the Robert Reichert mayoral administration of the likely miscalculation of pension benefits dating back to 2012. The use of an incorrect actuarial multiplier could result in hundreds of thousands of dollars due retirees.

An independent audit is currently underway but turnover in human resources staffing complicated the initial internal investigation.

Veteran human resources director Ben Hubbard retired at the end of Dec. 2019 and those initially looking into the pension benefits did not have access to his laptop. Another long-serving benefits manager took a job at the tax commissioner’s officer and a third worker passed away last September.

A wealth of knowledge about the department operation left with them, Miller said.

“After I got elected and sworn in, I began to dig deeper into the HR department. There were some challenges there because we had one person there with all the knowledge for a long period of time,” Miller said.

The consolidated government also has three separate pension plans including those dating back to the old city of Macon and Bibb County days.

Miller placed Duhart on probation and watched closely for another few months.

“Things didn’t get better to my liking,” he said. “The HR director serves at the pleasure of the mayor and it’s nothing personal against the person. But we have to do a good job and we have numerous complaints from our police and fire and other retirees.”

Duhart, who served about a year as director, worked in the department since 2009 and was promoted following Hubbard’s departure. She previously served as interim director and assistant director.

Under her leadership, Miller found that the HR department was not accessible enough. Phone calls were not returned and emails went unanswered, he said.

Outsourcing pension administration

Early this year, Moffett floated the idea of outsourcing pension operations as the department struggled to meet the needs of current and former employees.

In March, members from all three pension boards heard presentations from the Association of County Commissioners, the Georgia Municipal Association and Buck, the company currently conducting the audit.

The board members agreed having ACCG provide administrative and actuarial services would provide the best service for employees at a reasonable price.

The contract calls for a $115,000 one-time startup cost and about $423,000 annually. The fee will be split between the three retirement plans.

Moffett acknowledged that if the county kept the pension administration in house, they would have to hire additional staff and purchase new benefit software. Plus, there would be a learning curve for new personnel.

The ACCG has been offering retirement services for more than 50 years and currently services 80 percent of the state’s counties. The contract calls for them to take over Jan. 1, 2022.

They will create a self-service website to allow workers and retirees to explore their own retirement calculations and benefit options.

That was a selling point for Macon-Bibb Commissioner Valerie Wynn, who sits on two of the three boards.

“ACCG has a fantastic system that enables employees to go in and do it themselves. They can do it at midnight if they want to,” Wynn told her colleagues before Tuesday’s vote.

Delays in getting retirement information and benefits processed were a continual source of complaints, Moffett said.

“If somebody came in today and said, ‘I’m thinking about retiring.’ That’s a complicated process,” he explained.

Initial conversations can take hours, getting benefit calculations often took days.

The short-staffed HR department could not keep up.

Karen Collier, chairman of the Macon-Bibb County Pension Plan, saw the benefit of having experts take over calculations and inquiries.

“To have someone independently do them who is trained, and that’s all they do, will allow HR to service the current employees, as well. Sounds like it took a long time to do those calculations for people who are no longer with us,” Collier told her board before they approved the proposal last month.

Macon-Bibb Finance Director Christy Iuliucci said the outsourcing will bring consistency across the three plans.

“I feel better knowing the actuary is looking at all the plans in the same way,” Iuliucci told the board last month.

It was a suspected actuarial error that led to the current audit.

Benefits audit nearing completion

For the past few months, Scan & More scanned thousands of personnel documents from old paper files so that Buck could digitally perform the audit.

They plan to test 100 calculations from each plan to determine if there is a problem and to what extent. Results should come back by the end of July, senior assistant county attorney Michael McNeill told the pension board Wednesday.

“We’re going to do what’s right by our retirees,” Miller said last week. “And if it means they get more money, then certainly we will be happy to do that.”

He also cautioned that “when you open up that can of worms” the investigation could reveal over-payments that might result in reductions.

In the meantime, the job posting for director of human resources closes at the end of June.

The position pays nearly $106,000, according to the post on the county website.

Miller said Duhart’s dismissal is part of his policy to “hold everybody responsible and accountable.”

He hopes to have a new director in place by fall.

“We’re going to look for the best and most qualified person we can do. We’re not going to rush that position, but we’re going to… cast a wide net. Look for the right person.”

Civic Journalism Senior Fellow Liz Fabian covers Macon-Bibb County governmental entities. Contact her at 478-301-2976 or [email protected]