In the summer of 2020, Charles Sampson, a retired Seattle Police Department employee, received a letter with unwelcome news: The city had overpaid his pension benefits over five years, and he owed it $111,615.68.
Sampson, now 73, stared at the bold, six-figure sum in disbelief. “It was unreal to us, unreal,” said his wife, Mary Sampson. They hoped the city would drop the matter, but about a year later they received another letter, no less disconcerting than the first.
The city had already lowered Charles Sampson’s pension benefit to the correct sum, and now was cutting it by an additional 25% to recover the overpayment. That brought his monthly check to $1,244, a 63% reduction from what he had been receiving. More ominously, the letter states that “if your benefit payments cease and any overpaid amount remains uncollected,” the city “may also seek recovery from you, your estate or your beneficiaries.”
Charles Sampson is one of six retired city employees or their beneficiaries who have received such notices, all voting from a failure to adjust pension payments lower. Combined, the city paid these retirees roughly $775,000 more than they should have received, according to records of the Seattle City Employees’ Retirement System (SCERS) — a daunting sum for individuals, although merely a drop in the $3.95 billion pension fund.
The errors are a legacy of a time, as recently as 2018, when SCERS staffers manually logged pension data in spreadsheets to make a series of complicated benefit calculations. For instance, hundreds of retirees have selected an option that pays higher benefits until they begin collecting Social Security, at which point SCERS reduces their payment.
Adjusting these benefits requires monitoring a retiree’s age. In six cases, that didn’t happen, according to SCERS officials.
The overpayments only came to light with the introduction in 2019 of a $15 million administration system that automates such calculations and flags mistakes.
“We acknowledge that we have some responsibility,” said Jeff Davis, SCERS’ executive director, blaming the manual process.
“But the fact is SCERS has legal obligations to make a reasonable effort to recover the funds owed,” said Paige Alderete, SCERS’ chief operating officer.
SCERS has recovered about a quarter of the overpayments, including two retirees who repaid the city in full, Alderete said. The pension fund is not seeking to recover interest on the overpayments and is allowing retirees to pay the money back over time by reducing their retirement benefits. The city will not take legal action to compel any outstanding sums from retirees’ estates, should they die, Davis said.
For some retirees, however, SCERS’ mistake still rankles.
“What really gets me is they waited nine years to let me know I’d been overpaid,” said Richard Jewett, a former Seattle City Light worker who retired in 2010. By then he owed more than $165,000. “That’s totally unacceptable,” he said.
Jewett, 77, thought about filing a lawsuit but let it go, preferring to spend his time working in his garden in the Skagit County town of Concrete, and with his grandkids. “Life’s more important to me than dealing with the city,” he said. “I’ve adjusted to what they’re giving me, though I really wish it wouldn’t have been that way.”
The Sampsons, though, still seethe at what they see as a matter of fairness. “I did my part, but you made an error,” Charles said of SCERS. Mary said the couple intentionally chose to receive the pension spread out over time. “I feel like our right to choose was taken away from us,” she said.
Charles Sampson has worked since he was 15 years old. He served in the Navy and later worked nearly 37 years as a community service officer for the Seattle Police Department, sorting non-law-enforcement matters, from landlord-tenant disputes to homelessness. “We had a slogan,” he recalled. “If a CSO can’t help you, you can’t be helped.”
He and Mary, who retired as an administrative staff analyst, bought a tidy home in Renton with trimmed hedges and a view of Lake Washington. Their 53-year marriage has also had its share of health scares and struggles; Charles has had chronic heart problems, cancer and is dealing with memory difficulties, they said.
After retiring in 2009, Charles gave no thought to the calculation of his benefits — except that he was preoccupied with making sure that Mary would receive his pension if he died.
He asked SCERS to verify his benefits twice — in 2016, months after he became eligible for Social Security, and in 2019 — when the couple needed to verify their income to refinance their home. Each time, SCERS affirmed that the benefit payments were correct.
“When you’re reading stuff like this you’re believing them,” Mary Sampson said.
The letter notifying them of the overpayment came a year later. The Sampsons appealed, but SCERS determined that deducting 25% from Charles’ monthly check wouldn’t create an undue hardship on their finances.
Charles and Mary Sampson acknowledge that they have enough to cover their costs, though they’ve had to keep a close eye on bank balances before paying their bills and are considering terminating a life insurance policy whose premiums have become increasingly expensive.
Because SCERS is responsible for the payment error, they’d hoped it would waive 50% of their debt. Instead, they are paying back $5,000 a year — a rate that would take 22 years to pay off, when the Sampsons would both be 95.
Even if they don’t end up having to repay it all, the obligation has weighed on them psychologically.
“It’s a debt we owe you now,” Mary Sampson said of SCERS. “It’s not good for us.”