Mark Oropeza bailed out as Columbus airport director at age 57 with a golden parachute that will pay him more than $61,000 a year for the rest of his life.
Days before he retired, Oropeza was moved from the city's general pension plan into the public safety pension fund, allowing him to immediately draw retirement benefits instead of having to wait until he is 65.
Oropeza was eligible to be in the public safety pension fund because he has been a state-certified law enforcement officer since 1993. Beginning in April, he is eligible to draw retirement benefits based on his $127,783 60-month average annual salary, according to records in the city's Human Resources Department.
Based on his 26 years with the city, he is eligible to draw each year about 55 percent of his six-figure salary -- or almost $61,310 annually. He will receive $5,109 a month, which makes his pension among the highest in the public safety fund. By comparison, the last Columbus Police chief to retire, Willie Dozier, left the city in November 2004 and draws about $4,495 a month, according to city records.
Sherry Goodrum, a Columbus attorney and chairwoman of the Columbus Airport Commission, declined to discuss the terms of Oropeza's departure and any possible severance package. She strongly defended the move of Oropeza into the public safety pension plan, suggesting it should have been done six years ago. That is how long the airport commission has been trying to move its public safety employees who provide police and fire protection at the airport from the general plan to the public safety plan.
Columbus Council blocked the move for years before it finally happened last October. At that time, 11 airport public safety employees were transferred to the public safety fund. The move came at a cost to the airport commission, which had to contribute $85,624 to make the public safety pension plan whole.
Oropeza was not among the 11. "He should have been," Goodrum said.
Columbus Mayor Teresa Tomlinson, who led the effort to revamp the pension plans last year, agreed.
"He should have been moved originally, and I don't know why he wasn't," she said. "... He qualifies."
Goodrum said that shortly after the 11 employees were put in the public safety pension plan, Oropeza brought it to her attention that he was not in the group. Late last year, Goodrum started efforts to put Oropeza into the plan.
That move was finalized recently, but at a significant cost to the airport commission, which had to pay $152,535 to make the public safety plan whole. That was almost $65,000 more than the commission paid to get the first 11 public safety employees on the plan.
"We were fixing things that should have been done earlier," Goodrum said.
Shortly after Oropeza was put in the public safety pension plan, his retirement was announced. Goodrum declined to answer questions about the timing of Oropeza's move into the public safety pension plan and his sudden retirement.
Goodrum said that in Oropeza's role as airport director he was also the facility's public safety director.
"Mark carried the No. 1 (law enforcement) badge at the airport," Goodrum said. "There is no reason he should not have been on the public safety pension plan."
Local Fraternal Order of Police President Randy Robertson said the FOP would be filing Open Records Act requests to fully understand how Oropeza was moved to the public safety pension plan. The FOP does not object to Oropeza's law enforcement qualifications that make him eligible for the plan, but said he should have been moved in October when the other airport officers and firefighters were.
"This happened so fast it needs to be reviewed," Robertson said.
Last year, city public safety and general government employees started contributing to the pension plan to help secure it for the future. In doing that, moves like this should come under scrutiny, Robertson said.
"Those in charge of our pension plan need to be careful," Robertson said. "They don't want to open up a can full of rattlesnakes."
If the plan is used as an enticement to get employees to retire early, it could lead to the manipulation of the fund, Robertson said. That is the FOP's concern.