After nearly a year long fight to get the pension benefits they were promised, Tuesday a judge told Singing River Health System retirees they should sleep restfully from now on. Special Master Britt Singletary appointed an independent trustee, former Circuit Court Judge Steve Simpson, to oversee the pension. And he said an announcement of a settlement deal between the health system and retirees is close at hand.
"What we believe was the root of a lot of the problem was there was nobody on behalf of the pension holders or the pension members to look out for their interest alone," said Jim Reeves, who represents some of the retirees. "Now we have that person in place who is a watchdog, so to speak, for the pension holders."
Retirees who had packed into the hearing also heard encouraging words from Special Master Britt Singletary. He said the outgoing trustees have already resigned pending the appointment of the special fiduciary. He said Simpson will be getting with the outgoing trustees and the transition will take some time because the funds are now in three different banks and will be moved to the Peoples Bank in Biloxi as part of its trust department.
Singletary also spoke of what he said is a soon to be announce deal.
"All sides have agreed to a settlement that is going to be 100 percent payout. I think in a week to 10 days we'll be announcing a settlement," Singletary said. "I told the retirees to go home and sleep restfully tonight. They wear shirts that say 'Do the Right Thing', and everybody is trying to do the right thing here."
Attorneys representing retirees said they were hopeful.
"We've got Judge Singletary who guarantees us we're going to get 100 percent of the plan back," said attorney Earl Denham."I'm sure he's a man of his word and won't break it. I don't know where he's going to get the money, but I'm sure he'll find it and people will help him."
Attorney Jim Reeves said, "We've been engaged in intensive negotiations. Several rounds of mediation involving the federal and state courts. We are cautiously optimistic we will have a really good announcement here in short order."
After a year of courtroom battles and pickets lines, retirees are weary but determined to press on. Melba Richardson, a retiree, said the process was "very frustrating. Very, very, very frustrating. We are tired, but we are not giving up."
Retiree Kitty Aguilar said, "I certainly hope they can do the job that the judge promised in there. That would be a welcome thing. I have my doubts that it will happen, but we're certainly looking forward to it if they can manage to pull it off."
Singing River Health System attorneys said they look forward to working with Judge Simpson in the future management of the trust.