Archbold, OH

Open The Books

Public Pensions Should Be Scrutinized Before Getting More Taxpayer Cash

Until Ohio’s public-employee retirement systems are willing to disclose information about how their taxpayersupported funds are managed, lawmakers shouldn’t consider providing another penny in public money to shore them up.

Despite a public subsidy of more than $4 billion per year, details about the pension plans are hidden from public view.

A group of eight Ohio newspapers, including The Columbus

asked the pension plans in July for records of salaries, benefits, ages, years of service and contributions to the systems for each of the 400,000 people receiving benefits.

The idea is to analyze the data for irregularities such as abrupt changes in pay that could signal manipulations to boost benefits.

For the past year, the newspapers have been reporting on the growing cost of the pensions, double-dipping, risks of insolvency and, in some cases, requests for more tax money to stay afloat.

Keepers of the funds have refused to disclose the information the newspapers asked for, and they aren’t being honest with the public or their members about the request.

The newspapers asked for the pension information with names, addresses and similar personal identifiers deleted, to preserve confidentiality for retirees.

But here’s what the State Teachers Retirement System (STRS) told its members in an e-mail: “STRS Ohio has declined the request, to the extent it sought personal information of individual members.”

Statistical detail on salaries, payouts, age of retirement and the like isn’t personal when no names are attached.

And it’s critical to a better understanding of the pension systems and how to bring them more into line with the retirement benefits typical of the private sector.

Public pensions long have been richer than most private sector retirements, their cost exacerbated by the fact that they allow workers to retire far earlier than the Social Security age of 65 or 67– in some cases, as young as 48.

Like most retirement plans, Ohio’s five public-pension plans lost big in the stock market slide of 2008 and 2009. Some of the public plans are turning to taxpayers to be made whole.

Each of the five systems presented the Ohio Retirement Study Council with plans for how they could beef up the funds to ensure they can meet their obligations to employees.

All but the Highway Patrol Retirement System would raise the age at which members can retire with full benefi ts, though members still could retire substantially younger than in the private sector.

Most would increase the percentage of salary that employees contribute toward their retirement.

Two– STRS and the Ohio Police & Fire Pension Fund– suggest an increase in “employer contribution,” which is, of course, paid by taxpayers.

For STRS, the requested increase is to go incrementally, by 2020, from 14 percent to 16.5 percent. The police fund is asking for a bigger increase: to 24 percent, from 19.5 percent, over three years.

Then it and the fire fund, which already has a 24 percent taxpayer contribution, would both increase the taxpayer hit to 25 percent of salary.

The changes being requested would, in total, raise the public tab for public-employee pensions to $5 billion per year.

That’s a big request, and to demand it without being willing to show how the money is managed is unreasonable.

Lawmakers should demand transparency on public pensions before they approve any more tax money for them.–The Columbus Dispatch

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