Jennifer Wheeler, pictured in her office in Dallas on Wednesday, is retiring early after a recent policy change at the Public Employees Retirement System. Her last day is Dec. 31. (Troy Brynelson/Salem Reporter)

A change in Polk County Commissioner Jennifer Wheeler’s retirement plans forced her to an early exit, and the county is now moving to appoint her replacement.

Wheeler will step down Dec. 31 with two years left in her second term. Replacing her will be one of five candidates that Commissioners Craig Pope and Mike Ainsworth interviewed Wednesday.

“My confidence level is very high,” Pope told Salem Reporter. “We have five really good applicants.”

Wheeler’s exit stems from a recent change in the Public Employees Retirement System that affects people like Wheeler who’ve had multiple stints away from public work.

The 65-year-old has for four decades worked for the state of Oregon, Western Oregon University, the Dallas School District, the Public Utilities Commission and, ultimately, Polk County.

But that resume is also peppered with years away from work, where she often withdrew from her retirement fund. In the late ‘70s, she quit a state job to move to Australia, where her son was born. She came to the public sector in Oregon in 1981, only to leave again a few years later to go back to attend Western Oregon University.

“They were two foolish decisions as a young person but I’m very grateful I made them because I have my son and a college education,” she told Salem Reporter.

A letter from PERS in August set the stage for her to leave her $70,000-a-year job as a Polk County commissioner.

PERS allows workers to buy back their “waiting time” — the first six months of a job before retirement benefits kick in — in order to add to their final amount of years of service. Retirement payments are calculated based on years of service, average salaries and other factors.

Many choose to buy back that waiting time, said Marjorie Taylor, senior policy director at PERS.

“If you multiply $100,000 of a final average salary by 30 (years), instead of 30-and-a-half years, it will be less,” she said. “You’re increasing your benefit. Even if it’s just half a year, it can be significant.”

Wheeler accrued 20 months of waiting time during her career, she said, and she hopes to buy it back.

However, a new policy kicking in Jan. 1 bundles the cost of waiting time with other costs: “forfeited time,” — time away from paying into her retirement account — and the money she withdrew during that time away.

The new policy allows Wheeler to buy back six months without those added costs, but to get the full 20 months she would have to pick up the other costs.

Wheeler said if she waited for the new policy to kick in, the cost to buy back those 20 months would rise from $2,000 to $90,000.

“It makes a difference in my monthly salary significantly for the rest of my life,” Wheeler said.

Pope, a Polk County commissioner since 2010, said he understood Wheeler’s decision and called it a loss.

“She has a lot of history and knows a lot about how things are done,” he said. “That’s certainly an impact.”

After Wheeler alerted him and Ainsworth in October, they whittled 25 applicants to five, who were interviewed Wednesday.

Finalists are Anna Scharf, a farm owner and board member of the Perrydale School District; Burney Krauger, a retired Polk County sheriff’s deputy who has served on boards of local agricultural organizations; Kimberly Townsend, who works for Western Oregon University and the Independence Police Department; Lyle Mordhorst, a manager at Les Schwab and former president of the West Salem High School Education Foundation; and Micky Garus, a former Dallas City councilor who owns American Glove Company and a hunting supplies store.

Ainsworth and Pope will make their choice Wednesday, Dec. 5.

Pope, who previously owned a agricultural company before his election, said he’s weighing candidates’ community involvement and business backgrounds.

“We’re a $70 million general budget operation with over 400 employees, so it’s a very large business to manage and that’s been some of my personal criteria,” he said.

Facing about a month left on the job, Wheeler said she had not really had plans for retirement. She said she will likely travel with her husband and visit her grown children and grandchildren.

During her tenure, she said she was happiest to see implementation of drug and mental health courts in Polk County, as well as a mental health crisis response team.

“It’s amazing to see these people who have cycled through the criminal justice for a number of years and they’re finally able to get the wrap-around services they need,” she said. “They’re finally able to get their feet back on the ground.”

Wheeler’s replacement will have to get familiar with those services quick. Polk County on Wednesday announced hopes to put $2.8 million bond on the May ballot to pay for more public safety services. Polk County residents approved a similar bond in 2015.

Have a tip? Contact reporter Troy Brynelson at 503-575-9930, troy@salemreporter.com or @TroyWB.