Phoenix Considers Capping Pension Benefits, Other Changes; Measure Could Be on August Ballot


The Phoenix City Council is debating whether to put a major pension measure on the August ballot, according to a report from the Arizona Republic.

The measure, designed to reduce the city’s future pension costs, would aim to eliminate pension “spiking” by putting a cap on the salary used to determine pension benefits.

But the measure would also reduce employees’ pension contribution rate.

The changes would only affect new hires, and wouldn’t apply to public safety workers.

More on the specifics of the changes, from the Arizona Republic:

Proposed changes aim to cap the size of future high earners’ retirements and combat the practice of pension spiking, or the artificial inflation of an employee’s income toward the end of a career to boost retirement benefits.

The proposed ballot initiative would cap the portion of future employees’ compensation used to determine pensions at $125,000, and require the city to contribute to a 401(k)-style retirement plan for any portion of salary above that amount. That move and changes to the retirement formula would reduce costs to the system, officials said.


Although the city estimates the new initiative cuts costs overall, it includes some changes that critics fear could increase pension expenses.

The committee’s recommended plan would reduce and cap the amount of money that new employees must contribute to their pensions at 11 percent of pay. City workers will soon pay more than 15.5 percent of their paychecks into the pension system, on top of the 6.2 percent they must put into Social Security — and their pension payment could climb to 17 percent in the next several years.

If the measure is implemented, the city expects savings of almost $39 million over 20 years.

The City Council will decide on Wednesday whether or not to put the measure on the August ballot.

If it makes the ballot, the fate of the measure will be in voters’ hands.


Photo credit: “Entering Arizona on I-10 Westbound” by Wing-Chi Poon – Own work. Licensed under CC BY-SA 2.5 via Wikimedia Commons –

Phoenix Lawmakers Weigh In On Proposition 487

Entering Arizona sign

When Phoenix voters go to the polls today, they will decide the fate of one of the most controversial ballot measures in the country: Proposition 487.

The measure would close of the city’s defined-benefit system to new hires and shift them into a 401(k)-style plan.

Public safety workers are excluded, but unions say death and disability benefits could still be reduced.

The Arizona Republic asked city leaders from both sides of the aisle to weigh in on the bill:

“In 2013, I was proud to co-chair the city’s pension reform committee that successfully passed $700 million in savings. That reform passed the right way — considered by a citizen panel and approved with more than 80 percent of the vote. Prop. 487 was written and funded by dark, out-of-state money, with no local consideration or feedback. If it passes, it will undo all the work we did last year, and the city estimates that it will cost taxpayers more than $350 million. Phoenix should vote no on Prop.487.”

Daniel Valenzula, District 5, parts of west and central Phoenix

“Assumption of risk has been largely ignored except for Bob Robb’s recent analysis. The pension of former City Manager David Cavazos illustrates the importance of this issue. Although I voted against his large salary increase, council action raised his pension to approaching $250,000 per year for life, starting at age 53. If the economy goes bad, if an emergency arises, the city still owes approximately $250,000 per year. Another individual would need about $5million set aside (never to be spent because of an economic downturn, a family emergency or anything else) earning 5 percent every year to match that pension.”

Jim Waring, vice mayor (District 2), northeast Phoenix

“Voting yes on Prop. 487 brings fiscal accountability back to the city of Phoenix. Our city is in a financial crisis. Pension costs are cutting into services and causing new tax increases. Phoenix is short more than 500 police officers, and the politicians imposed a new water tax to pay for increasing pension costs. Prop. 487 stops the financial bleeding. Without Prop. 487, you will see more cuts in service and higher taxes. We could add 150 new police officers if we just stopped pension spiking alone. Pension spiking costs you more than $19 million per year. Please vote yes on Prop.487.”

Sal DiCiccio, District 6, Ahwatukee and east Phoenix

“If Prop. 487 passes, Phoenix would be the only government employer in Arizona and one of the few in the nation that does not offer a defined benefit plan. This presents a disadvantage in attracting quality employees and will deter current public employees in considering Phoenix as an employment option. The public sector already faces challenges due to less competitive wages. One of our attracting factors is pension benefits. Our city is additionally disadvantaged since we increased our retirement eligibility rule of 80 to 87, and research shows that lowering our pension benefits will be yet another detriment to the employment packages we offer.”

Michael Nowakowski, District 7, southwest Phoenix and parts of downtown

“Voters considering Prop. 487 should make no mistake: This measure will cost the city millions of dollars we don’t have, and every dollar spent on this shoddily drafted ballot initiative is a dollar taken away from the other priorities of the city: flood control, better streets, hiring new police officers, and other vital city services. Reasonable minds can disagree about Proposition 487 on many levels, but in the short-term, the evidence is clear: Proposition 487 is expensive. Our city is in a very difficult financial situation, and we simply cannot afford Prop. 487.”

Kate Gallego, District 8, southeast Phoenix and parts of downtown

See Pension360’s previous coverage of Proposition 487 here.

Would Phoenix’s Proposition 487 Hurt Public Safety Workers?

In exactly one week, Phoenix voters will determine the fate of Proposition 487 – the controversial ballot measure that would, among other things, end the city’s defined-benefit plan for all new hires and shift them into a 401(k)-style plan.

The measure excludes public safety workers, so nothing would change for police and firefighters. Or would it?

In recent weeks, a fiery debate has emerged over whether Prop 487 would actually harm the retirement security of the city’s public safety workers.

Dustin Gardiner at the Arizona Republic writes:

Hundreds of firefighters and police officers chant “No on 487!” outside an upscale Biltmore office tower, rallying against a ballot initiative they contend will gut their most critical benefits.

They say the measure…would jeopardize their retirement security and death and disability benefits.

That dire situation they portrayed at the protest earlier this month — suggesting Prop. 487 will eviscerate the pensions of officers and firefighters and leave families of fallen first responders without benefits — is improbable given that state law prohibits it.

Nevertheless, the hotly disputed claim has become the dominant argument in the final stretches of the campaign over the measure, which would close Phoenix’s employee-pension ­system for new hires and replace it with a 401(k)-type plan. The initiative is on the Nov. 4 ballot for city voters.


“Given that police officers and firefighters don’t receive Social Security and judges are apt to make unpredictable rulings, we refuse to take such risks with the public safety of our community,” leaders of the city’s police and fire unions wrote in a joint letter this week.

The Arizona Republic editorial board published a piece on Monday calling the arguments of public safety unions “thin”:

Prop. 487, which applies only to the Phoenix-run retirement system for non-public-safety employees, expressly excludes police and fire pensions. State law requires cities to contribute to the statewide public-safety pension system. The Arizona Constitution explicitly protects personnel already enrolled. Legal precedent clearly is on the side of public safety.

Even attorneys opposing Prop. 487 acknowledge that their arguments are thin. So why the fierce opposition?

Part of the explanation must be set at the feet of the Phoenix City Council, a majority of which opposes the proposition. The council created ballot language that disingenuously depicts the proposition taking action that is constitutionally forbidden.

The council majority and staff have made it clear which side they favor. It isn’t the side of the city’s taxpayers, who must bear the rapidly increasing expense of the city’s grossly underfunded pension plans.

But, largely, the anti-Prop. 487 campaign appears to be a statement by the city’s public-safety unions, which will adamantly oppose any effort to change any public-employee retirement system that promises to lessen the financial burden on the city’s taxpayers.

Even to the point of rising up against a ballot measure that will in no way affect their benefits.

But union leaders call the measure “poorly written” and maintain that the ambiguity of the measure doesn’t bode well for public safety workers. From a column in the Arizona Republic authored by the presidents of three Arizona public safety unions:

Prop. 487 will impact Phoenix police officers and firefighters. The only question is: Exactly how much?

Because of this measure’s contradictory language and because, according to the city’s analyses, Prop. 487 has the potential to make it illegal for the city to contribute to the public-safety retirement system, our groups oppose this ballot measure. Simply put: It is the wrong kind of reform.

Inevitably, Prop. 487 will end up in court for a years-long legal fight. Our opponents and The Arizona Republic editorial board have discounted that risk — and the looming massive legal bills.

However, given that police officers and firefighters don’t receive Social Security and judges are apt to make unpredictable rulings, we refuse to take such risks with the public safety of our community. We hope Phoenix residents will refuse, as well.

Read the entire column from the union leaders here.

You can read the Arizona Republic’s editorial board piece here.

How Would Phoenix Officials Handle The Up-Front Costs of Proposition 487?

Arizona State Seal

In two weeks, Phoenix voters will decide the fate of Proposition 487 – the ballot measure that would close off the city’s defined-benefit plan from new hires and shift them into a 401(k)-style plan.

The plan, if passed, would cost the city millions up front – but the tradeoff, proponents of the plan say, is a more sustainable pension system.

There are ways to offset the initial cost of the plan. One option is to eliminate deferred compensation for workers.

Would city officials support eliminating deferred compensation as a cost-saving measure?

The Arizona Republic asked them:

We asked: If Prop. 487 is approved, would you support removing deferred compensation without providing employees its value in another form? Please explain.

“It is important to provide employees fair compensation and to ensure the city remains a competitive employer. With that said, should Prop. 487 pass, the city will comply with the law and not provide deferred compensation. However, I would not want to presume what the end point or other forms of compensation could or could not be. We are required to negotiate in a fair and neutral manner per our Meet and Confer ordinance and to do so without a predetermined outcome. The city would negotiate in good faith with employee groups as required and practice good labor relations practices.”

Michael Nowakowski,District 7, southwest Phoenix and parts of downtown

“Yes. Prop. 487 lets current employees choose between their pensions or deferred compensation. They get to keep what they earned, but going forward, they can’t have both. Pensions are out of control — costs ballooned from $56 million in 2003 to $240 million in 2013. ‘Yes’ on Prop. 487 saves over $400 million by eliminating pension spiking and secondary retirement. This year, taxpayers saw a new water tax and cuts in police, after-school programs, seniors and libraries to fund the ballooning pension costs and $19 million in pension spiking. Prop. 487 treats employees and you fairly. Ask yourself, what do you get?”

Sal DiCiccio, District 6, Ahwatukee and east Phoenix

“I support 487. We must end pension spiking, and the prohibitively expensive status quo. I have voted against all final labor contracts as a councilman. By the time the initiative kicks in, the current contracts would have 18 months to run. I believe we must honor the voters’ decision and meet our contractual obligations (even though I voted against the contracts) by re-opening the contracts to mitigate loss of deferred compensation. In subsequent negotiations in 2016 and beyond, we should take a much more realistic approach to negotiations. The ‘we’ve always done it this way’ approach to negotiation must stop.”

Jim Waring, vice mayor (District 2), northeast Phoenix

“If deferred compensation is contained in contractual minutes — and rightfully owed to city employees — the city will be required to renegotiate its contract and provide payment in the form of wages. Ultimately, courts will decide the outcome at significant cost to taxpayers.”

Thelda Williams, District 1, northwest Phoenix

Fact Check: Would Phoenix’s Pension Proposal Really Cost $350 Million?

Entering Arizona sign

In just two weeks, Phoenix residents will head to the ballot boxes to vote on Proposition 487, the controversial pension reform measure that would shift new hires into a 401(k)-type system.

Recently, a group opposing the law made a bold claim:

“Prop. 487 will cost Phoenix taxpayers more than $350 million over the next 20 years.”

But is it true?

The Arizona Republic did some fact checking. They found that the switch to a 401(k)-type system wouldn’t save the city any money initially. In fact, one report claims that the switch would indeed cost the city $350 million:

That [401(k)] provision would not save money, according to the city’s actuary. A report from the financial analysis firm Cheiron states that closing the pension system and replacing it with a 401(k)-style plan would cost the city an estimated $358 million over the first 20 years, assuming the city contributes 5 percent of employees’ pay to the defined-contribution plan.

An analyst for Cheiron and city officials said the move to a 401(k)-style plan itself would cost more initially because Phoenix must pay down its massive unfunded pension liability while funding a new retirement plan.

The city’s pension system for general employees, the City of Phoenix Employees’ Retirement System, is only 64.2 percent funded, meaning it doesn’t have the assets to pay about $1.09 billion in existing liabilities. In other words, the city only has about 64 cents on the dollar to cover all of its long-term payments for current and future retirees.

Phoenix must pay off that pension debt regardless of what voters decide. Prop. 487 wouldn’t decrease the existing unfunded liability, but it would stop the city’s liability from growing, opponents and supporters agree.

But there’s a twist: other aspects of Prop. 487 could offset the previously-mentioned costs. From the Arizona Republic:

Other changes outlined in Prop. 487 could offset that up-front cost of switching to a 401(k)-style plan. If fully implemented, the initiative would save the city a net of at least $325 million over the first 20 years, according to Cheiron’s report.

Two key provisions of Prop. 487 could save money in the first 20 years:

–Make permanent and expand reforms the city has made to combat the practice of “pension spiking,” generally seen as the artificial inflation of a city employee’s income to boost retirement benefits. It would exclude from the pension calculation any compensation beyond base pay and expand the number of years used to determine an employee’s final average salary, a key part of the benefit formula. Those changes could save an estimated $475 million over the first 20 years, Cheiron’s report states.

–Prohibit the city from contributing to more than one retirement account for each city worker, including current employees. Currently, the city contributes to a second retirement plan, known as deferred compensation, on top of most employees’ pensions. Cheiron projects eliminating deferred compensation would save an estimated $208 million.

Consultants for the city have said Prop. 487 could save additional money if those changes are applied to public-safety employees, who are in a separate, state-run pension system. Although the initiative contains intent language saying it doesn’t impact police officers and firefighters, supporters and opponents disagree whether it will be interpreted that way.

Interestingly, city officials have tended to agree that the reform measure would cost the city $350 million over the next 20 years. Officials are also worried about the litigation the proposal could invite if passed by voters.

Phoenix Politicians Weigh In On Pension Reform Measure

Entering Arizona on I-10 Westbound

The Arizona Republic runs a great column every week where they ask a dozen major political players in Phoenix a question regarding an important issue.

This week, pensions were the issue. Specifically Proposition 487, which would shift new hires into a 401(k)-style system as opposed to a defined benefit plan.

There has been much debate over whether the law would impact police and firefighters, who are supposed to be shielded from the law.

Here’s what some Phoenix politicians had to say about the ballot measure, from the Arizona Republic:

We asked: Do you think Prop. 487 will impact the retirement benefits of current or future police officers and firefighters? Why or why not?

“Whatever the long-term impact of the proposition, it’s likely that if it’s passed, it will take years in court to clarify its true intent. The losers will be Phoenix taxpayers, who will bear the costs of a prolonged legal debate.”

Thelda Williams,District 1, northwest Phoenix

“No. I don’t believe that ‘preamble’ is an accurate term given voters will support or oppose the measure in its entirety, including this language from Page 1 in the ‘preamble:’ ‘This Act is not intended to affect individuals who are members of, or are eligible to join, any other public retirement system in the State of Arizona such as the Public Safety Employees’ Retirement System.’ While I understand those in the system are unhappy with this initiative, the alternative is to do nothing. That is not acceptable. Inaction by the council led to this citizen action in the first place.”

Jim Waring,vice mayor (District 2), northeast Phoenix

“Prop. 487, as written, impacts the retirement benefits of current and future public-safety personnel and does not exclude these employees as stated in the preamble. According to city analysis, Section 2.2 (C) runs counter to the current Public Safety Personnel Retirement Plan that is required by state statute for current and future public-safety employees. Therefore, future contributions to this plan would not be warranted and current public-safety employees would have these benefits frozen. Prop. 487 also prevents contributions to additional plans such as the Medical Expense Reimbursement Plan, Post Employment Health Plan and Fire Employee Benefit Trust.”

Michael Nowakowski,District 7, southwest Phoenix and parts of downtown

“Prop. 487 will absolutely impact police and firefighters. The only section of the measure that would have the force of law makes no special exemptions for public safety — whether that was the intent of who wrote it or not. Prop. 487 is the wrong reform. It is poorly written and will have devastating effects on taxpayers, police officers and firefighters alike. These brave men and women work every day to make sure that we are safe, and we owe it to them to protect their retirement. I urge Phoenix residents to vote no on Prop. 487.”

Daniel Valenzuela,District 5, Maryvale and west Phoenix

“The proponents of Prop. 487 did a sloppy job drafting this initiative. Prop. 487’s backers claim any harm to public-safety personnel was a careless mistake. However, this doesn’t square away with what proponents are actually trying to put in our city charter. Prop. 487 amends our charter with poorly-written language that would cost millions, making it harder for us to fund infrastructure improvements. The best-case scenario for first responders under Prop. 487 is that their status will be in jeopardy, potentially for years, as the fate of their benefits is determined by the courts following expensive litigation.”

Kate Gallego, District 8, southwest Phoenix and parts of downtown

“Voters can fix the broken pension system, saving $500 million, by voting yes on Prop. 487. The government unions have waged an all-out campaign of disinformation to stop pension reform. Prop. 487 does not impact public safety because: 1. Public-safety pensions are administered by the state, not the city. 2. State law doesn’t allow participants in PSPRS to opt out. 3. The initiative clearly states that it does notaffect public-safety personnel. Escalating pension costs means fewer services, less police and more taxes and fees. Prop. 487 brings financial accountability. Don’t believe the disinformation the government unions are propagating.”

Sal DiCiccio, District 6, Ahwatukee and east Phoenix

“Fellow Phoenix residents, I call it the way I see it. Prop. 487 is confusing and poorly written. If it passes, it could end up in court with the potential for millions of dollars going to legal fees, instead of supporting vital programs and services for our community. In addition, Prop. 487 could have detrimental consequences for our public-safety personnel and other city employees. Specifically, Prop. 487 could end defined-benefit pensions for Phoenix police officers and firefighters, making the women and men of public safety the only public-safety personnel in Arizona who could not earn a defined-benefit pension. Our police officers and firefighters work hard to keep our community safe, and we as a community should protect our public safety personnel’s retirement. This proposition is not the way to reform our city’s pension plan.”

Laura Pastor,District 4, central and parts of west Phoenix

“Yes. Prop. 487 will hurt our current police officers and fire fighters, and could even end death and disability benefits for our first responders. It is one of the many reasons why I oppose this initiative. The plain language prevents the City from making contributions to the state public safety pension system. Those behind the effort have not had this intent, but this initiative was so poorly written – so badly constructed – that it will have devastating consequences for Phoenix. On top of that, it will cost taxpayers $350 million. It’s the wrong reform, and we can’t afford it.”

Greg Stanton, mayor

Money has flooded into Phoenix in recent weeks to fund both opponents and proponents of the law. But the source of much of that money is shrouded in secrecy, as Pension360 wrote on Monday.

State Law May Stand In Way of Phoenix Pension Cuts

Phoenix police and fire

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.

The measure, if passed, would not apply to the city’s police and firefighters. But opponents of the reform are now saying that a legal quirk could end up blocking benefits for all of the city’s 4,000 police officers and firefighters. Reported by the Arizona Republic:

The initiative targets the retirement plan for general city workers hired in the future. Although the measure’s preamble states it’s not intended to affect first responders, attorneys for Phoenix have said the actual language, specifically the amendment to the City Charter, is poorly written and could wind up blocking pension contributions for existing and future police and fire.

However, several areas of state law, including the Arizona Constitution and provisions creating the Public Safety Personnel Retirement System, could prohibit Phoenix from ever withdrawing from the plan or diminishing retirement benefits for existing employees, attorneys said.


[Attorney Robert] Klausner said the likely result is that the Public Safety Personnel Retirement System would have to sue Phoenix or stop crediting its police and firefighters for additional years of service. Ultimately, he said, the city is in an “impossible conundrum” that it would probably lose.

“No matter what you do, you’re violating the law and welcoming a lawsuit,” Klausner said. “All that does is make lawyers really happy.”

Proponents of the reform measure have accused opponents of “scare-mongering”. From the Arizona Republic:

Scot Mussi, chairman of the group, said it’s clear that the city could not legally stop its payments to the state pension system. He said “scare mongering” Phoenix officials have suggested it could apply to public-safety workers to trick voters.

“That’s just crazy,” Mussi said of the argument regarding police and firefighters. “It would be unconstitutional. It would violate state law, and it goes against what’s expressed in the initiative itself.”

The fight over the measure has been going on for several weeks now. Opponents had earlier claimed that the measure would also unintentionally cut benefits for disabled workers.