Are Phoenix Pension Costs Really Rising by $18 Million a Year?

Entering Arizona sign

Phoenix voters struck down a pension reform measure, Prop. 487, on Election Day. But in the weeks since the defeat, several local lawmakers have vocally called for a renewed discussion of pension reform.

Perhaps the most prominent of those voices is Phoenix City Councilman Sal DiCiccio, who supported Proposition 487 and wants the conversation about pension reform to continue.

The Councilman has claimed that the city’s pension costs rise by $18 million every year—and those costs will have a major impact on the funding of other public services.

Eighteen million dollars is a lot of money. But is that claim true? The Arizona Republic fact-checked the figure:

In 2011, state pension-reform laws raised the employee contribution to 11.05 percent, and it will continue increasing until it hits 11.65 percent in 2015-16. The city contributes whatever is needed to completely fund the pensions.

Poorer-than-expected investment returns on both pension funds during the recession raised the city’s contribution in recent years. In 2010-11, Phoenix spent approximately $93.9 million on general pensions, $60.4 million on police pensions and $30 million on fire pensions.

By the 2014-15 budget, the city’s planned contributions had risen to $129 million for general pensions, $91 million for police pensions and $46 million for fire pensions.

DiCiccio’s $18 million figure comes from a projection made before the city approved its budget. It forecast Phoenix would spend $271 million on pensions, $18 million more than it budgeted in 2013.

However, when the city finalized its budget, the numbers had changed. Phoenix set aside $266 million for pension contributions, $13 million more than in 2013.

So, the $18 million figure isn’t exactly right. But the sentiment of the statement is generally correct – the city’s pension costs have risen by millions of dollar each year.

The Arizona Republic also checked DiCiccio’s statement on pension costs hurting funding for public services:

Overall city spending on fire, parks and police has increased in recent years, but the city has also hired fewer police officers and firefighters. The Phoenix Law Enforcement Association estimates that the city has 550 fewer police officers now than it did at its peak employment in 2009.

The United Phoenix Fire Fighters didn’t have similar numbers available, but Phoenix went from 1,671 firefighters in 2009 to 1,578 in 2012.

Staffing cuts caused Phoenix police officers to expand their patrol areas, DiCiccio said.

Phoenix also delayed more than $200 million in capital bond projects in 2010. Voter-approved bond projects allow construction of new public facilities, such as parks or libraries, or renovating existing buildings.

Phoenix’s pension payments have grown at a steeper rate than funding for such services.

Overall, the Arizona Republic said DiCiccio’s statement were “mostly true.”

Phoenix Pension Measure Voted Down, But City Leaders Say Reform Debate Not Over

Arizona State Seal

On Tuesday, Phoenix residents handily voted down Proposition 487, the ballot measure that would have shifted most new hires into a 401(k)-style retirement plan.

The Mayor was an opponent of the measure and called it “too extreme”; but some Phoenix leaders, even the ones that didn’t support Prop 487, are determined to continue the conversation on pension reform.
From the Arizona Republic:

Mayor Greg Stanton called the victory one of the greatest comebacks in Phoenix history. The group advocating for Prop. 487 had a major lead in the beginning, according to polling by both sides, and outspent the city unions, but city workers took to the streets and seized on concerns it could negatively impact public-safety workers.

However, other city leaders said the outcome must not signal the end of the pension-reform conversation. They said the city still has work to do to address rising costs that add to its budget shortfalls, setting the table for a debate over alternative reforms in the coming months.

“If the fiscal problems are not fixed, you will continue to see more cuts in service and higher taxes and fees,” said Councilman Sal DiCiccio, a vocal supporter of the initiative. “It’s making it harder and harder to deliver quality services.”


Taxpayers’ tab for the city pension system, not including police officers and firefighters, soared to $129 million this year, up from $27.8 million in fiscal 2002. At the same time, the city raised taxes and fees and cut employee compensation to balance its budget deficits.

And the city will likely face another budget deficit heading into the next fiscal year. Its costs for all employee pensions increased by more than $18 million this year alone. City leaders expect that trend will continue, at least in the near term.

“Now it’s time for us to step forward and do some reforms,” said Councilwoman Thelda Williams, who opposed Prop. 487. “I just never believed that (ballot measure) was the mechanism for us to do it.”

But there are obstacles to pushing through a new reform measure, especially since the city passed one as recently as 2013. From the Arizona Republic:

Any efforts for additional reform could face push-back from some City Council and labor leaders who contend the city addressed the problem with a 2013 ballot initiative.

In 2013, voters passed a requirement that municipal workers hired after July 1 of last year split pension-fund contributions 50-50 with the city and work longer before retiring, moves expected to help save $596 million over 25 years, according to the city.

The city also took steps to combat the practice of “pension spiking,” generally seen as the artificial inflation of a city employee’s income toward the end of a career to boost retirement benefits.

Phoenix’s new contracts with its employee unions end the controversial practice of spiking for police officers and firefighters but only cap it for other city workers, saving taxpayers an estimated $233 million over 25 years.

Prop 487 was shot down by voters by a margin of 56-44.

Voters Reject Phoenix Pension Overhaul

The controversial Phoenix ballot measure Proposition 487, which would have transferred all the city’s non-public safety new hires into a 401(k)-style system, has been struck down by voters.

From Reuters:

In a big victory for city labor unions, voters rejected Prop. 487 by a margin of 56.5 percent to 43.5 percent, according to results posted online by the Maricopa County Recorder/Elections Office.

The measure proposed to end the city’s traditional defined-benefit pension plan for new workers, shifting them to a plan dominant in the private sector, with employees pay a far greater share of the cost. Existing workers could have kept their current pensions.

The initiative was one of this year’s biggest test cases pushed by pension-reform advocates, including Texas billionaire and former Enron executive John Arnold, who have argued that traditional pension plans are an increasingly unaffordable burden for cash-strapped state and local governments.

The measure, by the city council’s own admission, would have cut retirement benefits significantly for new hires.

The city’s non-public safety pension fund is 64.2 percent funded.

Anonymous Money Floods Phoenix Pension Vote

Phoenix Proposition 487

A Phoenix ballot initiative – titled Proposition 487 – would block off the city’s traditional pension system from all new hires, and instead shift those employees into a new, 401(k)-style plan.

Unions have made no secret of their disdain for the initiative and have raised over $100,000, mostly from firefighters, to fund ads opposing the potential law.

But support for Proposition 487 is strong as well – $428,200 has been raised in support of the measure. The only problem: no one knows where that money is coming from. From the Arizona Republic:

Conservative advocacy groups with secretive funding sources are pouring money into a ballot-initiative effort to end the city pension system in Phoenix.

While it’s clear unions are bankrolling the opposition to Proposition 487, the sources of the pro side’s campaign war chest are unknown. Most of its cash has come from anonymous “dark money” groups — and the state is investigating its largest corporate backer over a complaint alleging campaign-finance violations.

So far, Citizens for Phoenix Pension Reform has received 98.5 percent of its money from corporate groups that don’t have to disclose their funding sources.

Campaign-finance reports filed late last week show the group has overwhelmingly outraised government-worker unions, raking in $428,200 through the Sept. 15 reporting period.


Most of the pro-reform group’s money — $335,750 — has come from the Arizona Free Enterprise Club, a non-profit corporation that’s not required to reveal its funding sources.

Because of its non-profit status, it does not have to disclose donors and therefore is considered a dark-money group. But it is required to spend more than half of its money on social-welfare causes. However, the Arizona Secretary of State’s Office concluded in August that there was “reasonable cause” to believe the Free Enterprise Club has violated elections laws and investigated its activities. Elections officials believe the club operates more like a political committee, which must disclose donors, than a non-profit.

Union groups are none too happy about the secretive funding sources. From the Arizona Republic:

Labor leaders against the initiative have made the shadow money a centerpiece of their campaign, posting hundreds of “Dark Money” arrows pointing to “YES on 487″ signs across the city. They assert the outside groups are propped up by right-wing billionaires and Wall Street bankers, who would benefit from axing pensions.

“If you have nothing to fear, say where your money is coming from,” said Frank Piccioli, president of the American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees Local 2960, which includes about 2,145 office workers and 911 operators.

“Most of them do have ulterior interests. They have to be benefiting somebody,” he said. “What do you have to hide?”

Unions have raised $106,600 to fight Prop. 487, with the bulk of the money coming from Valley firefighter unions. The opposition campaign reported contributions from firefighters in Phoenix, Chandler, Tempe, Glendale and Peoria. The anti-Prop. 487 campaign also isn’t required to disclose individual donors, though labor leaders said the money comes from membership dues.

Phoenix residents will vote on the measure on November 4.

Critics, Unions Bash Phoenix Pension Proposal

Entering Arizona sign

Labor groups and others in Phoenix are expressing outrage over a pension reform proposal – titled Proposition 487 – that would shift all new hires by the city into a new, 401(k)-style plan as opposed to the traditional pension plan that workers currently belong to.

The critics claim the new plan would cut benefits for disabled workers cut death benefits, as well. Reported by the Arizona Republic:

Opponents of a ballot initiative to end Phoenix’s employee pension system are raising concerns it could curb benefits for disabled city workers and the survivors of dead police officers and firefighters.


The message comes as Phoenix’s firefighter union has jumped full force into the effort to persuade voters to reject the initiative in the Nov. 4 election, putting up hundreds of “NO! ON 487″ signs across the city and campaigning door-to-door.

Fire Fighters Opposed to Prop. 487, a political committee, recently posted a photo of a fireman’s daughter on its Facebook page, saying, “If Prop. 487 passes and the unthinkable were to happen to her dad at work, Claire and her mom would receive nothing. Taking line-of-duty death benefits from firefighters and police officers is simply wrong.”

As it stands, the family of a city employee who dies prematurely can receive a portion of his or her pension as a death benefit. An employee who is injured can retire early and collect a portion of his or her pension.

Supporters of the reform initiative claim that critics are trying to distract voters from the real issue: the sustainability of the city’s pension system. From the Arizona Republic:

Supporters of the initiative, also known as the Phoenix Pension Reform Act, contend the arguments about disability retirement and death benefits for first responders is a red herring meant to distract voters who have the chance to stop a costly pension system. The city’s costs for the pensions of civilian workers have soared to $129 million this year, up from $27.8 million in fiscal 2002.

Voters will vote on the ballot initiative on November 4.