Right before she battled back to reclaim an office she held for more than 30 years, St. Louis Recorder of Deeds Sharon Carpenter did something most longtime city employees do: She applied for her pension.
Carpenter served as the city’s recorder of deeds from 1980 to mid-2014. After she resigned, she applied for and started receiving a monthly benefit of $4,238.76. Later that year, she defeated incumbent Recorder of Deeds Jennifer Florida in a landslide.
But even though she’s no longer retired, Carpenter continues to receive the monthly pension she earned largely from the job she currently holds – along with her salary. The pension adds roughly $50,000 a year, before taxes, to her take home pay.
“I don’t think anyone envisioned this particular situation, including me,” Carpenter said in a telephone interview.
Certainly, Carpenter earned her pension from her time in city government, and Carpenter’s current arrangement does not appear to be illegal – and not unprecedented in St. Louis government. But even Carpenter concedes it's an unusual situation, especially given the string of events that brought her back into office.
“I was not the surest person that I was going to win,” Carpenter said. “And had I not, as you said, I would be just a retiree. I don’t know if myself or anyone else ever thought of anything like this happening. But it did. And, I mean, I got a copy of this from the benefits sections of the city personnel department. And they said as far as they’re concerned, I’m a new employee.”
From vanquished to victor
First, a little background: Carpenter was recorder of deeds from 1980 to the middle of 2014. In the midst of her re-election bid, it was revealed that she had hired her great nephew to do office work – which ran afoul of state laws regarding nepotism. She resigned on July 11, 2014. (Click here to hear Carpenter discuss the issue at length on the Politically Speaking podcast.)
Carpenter said she applied for her pension soon after she left office. According to the city’s retirement handbook, city employees can start receiving benefits at age 65 or if their years of service and age total 85. Carpenter – who is in her mid-70s -- clearly fit both of those qualifications.
According to information provided to St. Louis Public Radio from the Employees Retirement System of St. Louis, Carpenter applied for retirement after she resigned as recorder of deeds. It became effective on Oct. 1 and her first monthly benefit of $4,238.76 was dated Oct. 31, according to documents.
Carpenter, however, wasn’t prohibited from running for recorder of deeds again. She was already on the August primary Democratic ballot before she resigned and subsequently swept the city's 28 wards against two opponents. She then went on to to soundly defeat Florida in the general election in November.
Denise Droege, the manager of the city retirement system, said in a letter to St. Louis Public Radio that Carpenter “will continue to receive pension benefits in accordance with a particular city ordinance." That states:
“Retirees of the retirement system who subsequent to retirement are elected to a city office shall have a continuation of all their retirement benefits as well as other emoluments provided by law for their public office, notwithstanding any other contrary provisions of the said retirement system.”
Carpenter said she would continue to receive the pension along with her salary, which she estimates is around $97,000 a year. (A spokeswoman for St. Louis Comptroller Darlene Green couldn’t provide St. Louis Public Radio with an exact salary.)
The reason she applied for retirement, Carpenter said, was pretty straightforward: She didn’t know that she was going to win her old job back – especially after her resignation prompted a wave of negative publicity and an expensive opposition campaign from Florida.
“It was all about paying bills, like everyone else,” Carpenter said.
'Sam Louis Memorial'
Carpenter used to serve as the secretary for the president of the Board of Aldermen in 1970s. And because of that, she said she distinctly remembers the origins behind the ordinance in question.
After Alderman Ray Leisure passed away, Sam Louis was picked to replace Leisure as the alderman for the 7th Ward. Louis had been in charge of Soldiers’ Memorial for several decades and had accumulated a fairly significant pension, Carpenter said.
But after he was sworn in, Carpenter said Louis realized that his pension would be cut off – and he wouldn’t be able to live on an aldermanic salary.
“Because you couldn’t get two paychecks at the same time, they cut off his pension. Aldermen at the time made $7,500,” Carpenter said. “So Sam is going to have to move back to almost poverty – probably close to poverty level. And he didn’t have an option. He couldn’t turn the aldermanic pay and say ‘I’ll just live on my pension.’ You have to take the pay for the job that you have.”
“Because all of a sudden, everyone understood what that particular issue was. For years, they called it the ‘Sam Louis Memorial,’” she added.
Indeed, Carpenter isn’t the only elected official in St. Louis receiving a city pension while holding elected office.
Alderman Larry Arnowitz last received a pension payment of $1,616.06 a month for a host of city jobs. The 12th Ward Democrat worked in the treasurer’s office, license collector’s office, sheriff’s office, Board of Public Service’s office, city marshal’s office, the Department of Personnel and the city comptroller’s office before being elected as an alderman.
And Alderman Tom Villa, D-11th Ward, last received a $431.17 monthly pension for serving as the director of public safety and Board of Aldermen president. Villa, who served two different stints in the Missouri House, applied for his pension in 2005.
Both of those situations are markedly different from Carpenter’s. Arnowitz, for instance, had never been elected to anything before he won election to his seat in 2011. And Villa had a nearly two-decade gap between his elected city positions – as opposed to a roughly 174 days Carpenter spent out of the recorder of deeds post.
“It is unusual. And certainly never was my plan,” she said. “I don’t think even a novelist could have plotted this one.”