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

Arizona

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 – http://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Entering_Arizona_on_I-10_Westbound.jpg#mediaviewer/File:Entering_Arizona_on_I-10_Westbound.jpg

Illinois Gov. Rauner Would Fine Schools For “Spiking” Pensions

Bruce Rauner

Illinois public schools that hand out late-career pay raises could be subject to heightened penalties under the Rauner administration.

Gov. Bruce Rauner this week laid out a series of pension-related measures as part of his budget proposal; among them was the idea of levying a penalty on schools that give late-career raises to teachers.

Illinois already penalizes schools for handing out such raises if they exceed 6 percent. Under Rauner’s proposal, schools would be penalized for any such raise that exceeds the cost of inflation, which is a much lower threshold.

More from the Daily Herald:

Tucked away in his plan to cut teachers’ pensions, though, is a detail school districts would have to be wary of should Rauner’s plans become law.

Here’s all it says on the list of details released publicly by the governor’s office: “Eliminates spiking.”

Rauner wants to change a state law that makes local school districts pay penalties if they give big end-of-career pay raises to teachers and administrators.

School districts can still give the pay raises, but the state says local officials have to pay for the pension consequences.

Now, school districts have to pay penalties if they give late-career pay raises of more than 6 percent. Rauner wants to enact penalties for those pay raises if they’re greater than the rate of inflation, which lately has been around 1 percent.

Suburban schools have already had to pay big bucks when they’ve been caught by the 6 percent law. For the 2012-2013 school year, for example, Elgin Area District U-46 had to pay $135,393.

The year before that, Schaumburg Township District 54 had to pay $489,841.

Most districts avoid big penalties, even writing in a 6 percent pay raise cap into their contracts with teachers. But 1 percent is a lot lower, of course.

“While a so-called reform was enacted in an effort to prevent pension spiking, teacher contracts in recent years have made the six percent cap a floor rather than a ceiling,” Rauner spokesman Lance Trover said.

A teacher’s salary during his/her final year of teaching plays a large role in determining pension benefits.

 

By Steven Vance [CC-BY-2.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/2.0)], via Wikimedia Commons

Audit: Oregon Public Employees Not “Spiking” Pensions

cut up one hundred dollar bills

The Oregon Secretary of State’s office has released the results of an audit that investigated the possibility that Public Employee Retirement System workers were “spiking” their pensions in the years before retiring.

The audit, which was conducted to determine whether “spiking” played a part in the retirement system’s rising costs, found no evidence that such a tactic is practiced.

[The audit can be found here.]

From the Statesman Journal:

PERS costs may have risen, auditors said, but “spiking” wasn’t the reason.

State auditors examined more than 14,000 PERS records for people who retired between 2010 and 2013. They found the records showed no “systemic pension inflation or salary growth issues.”

“We also found that provisions of individual employment contracts may have an effect on pension payouts. However, the inflation of pensions, either intentional or unintentional, appears infrequent,” the auditors wrote.

“The impact on PERS appears to be negligible.”

[…]

Most retirees use a formula that is based on an average of their final three years of salary and the number of years they have worked as a member of PERS.

That formula can theoretically be manipulated if an employee suddenly receives abnormally large raises at the end of his or her career or some other type of large, abrupt compensation.

It’s called “spiking” — the act of making a salary and the resulting pension suddenly jump into the stratosphere.

However, in nearly every case state auditors found suspicious (and there were very few), the “spike” in salary was explained by a completely normal employment event, auditors said.

The full audit can be read here.

 

Photo by TaxCredits.net

562 of Pennsylvania’s Municipal Pension Funds Classified as “Distressed”

Eugene DePasquale

Pennsylvania Auditor General Eugene DePasquale released figures Wednesday on the debt and funding status of the state’s municipal pension systems.

The majority of the state’s 1,200 municipal pension plans were funded at 90 percent or higher, according to the Auditor General’s office.

But 562 of the plans were classified as “distressed”.

From TribLive:

Pittsburgh is one of 562 Pennsylvania municipalities with distressed pension funds, according to figures Auditor General Eugene DePasquale released Wednesday.

About 1,200 municipalities in Pennsylvania administer their own pension plans. Collectively, they were $7.7 billion underfunded through 2012, up from $6.7 billion the year before.

“It’s gone up by $1 billion with no sight of action yet by the Legislature,” DePasquale said. “There’s no way around it; we need a statewide solution.”

Most of the shortfall was in Philadelphia, where the city’s unfunded liabilities surpass $5.3 billion, according to July 2013 figures. Pittsburgh was the second-highest as of January 2013 at about $484 million.

[…]

DePasquale recommends some short-term fixes. Governments should prohibit employees from “spiking” their pensions by working extra overtime, increase age and service requirements in accordance with increased life expectancies, and ensure all plans require members to contribute.

Long term, DePasquale wants local plans consolidated into a state system with job-specific classes: police officers, firefighters and non-uniformed employees.

The state’s auditor general says he will “continue to beat this drum” until lawmakers come up with a way to make municipal pension systems more sustainable.

 

Photo by Paul Weaver via Flickr CC License

North Carolina Pension Changes Go Into Effect Jan. 1

north carolinaAs of January 1, 2015, highly paid government workers in North Carolina will no longer be allowed to boost their pension benefits with accumulated sick leave or other perks, according to a law signed over the summer by North Carolina Gov. Pat McCrory.

The law also lowers the “vesting period” for benefits of public employees from 10 years to 5 years.

Pension “spiking”, as the practice is sometimes called, happens when workers accumulate sick leave, vacation time, bonuses and other benefits until the year before they retire. In their final year on the job, they cash out all those benefits—inflating their final year salary.

Since final year salaries play a big role in calculating a worker’s pension benefits, spiking can increase a retiree’s annual pension by thousands of dollars per year. The practice is currently legal in most states.

But the practice is now outlawed in North Carolina for all state and local workers who make $100,000 or more annually. From the News & Observer:

The new law, which takes effect Jan. 1, comes after The News & Observer in November reported how four community college presidents and their boards converted tens of thousands of dollars in perks to pay as they neared retirement age, creating pension boosts the retirement system will have to subsidize. The retirement system is funded by contributions from employees, taxpayers through employer contributions, and investment returns.

“This law prevents North Carolina state employees from having to subsidize artificially inflated pensions of high earners at the end of their careers,” McCrory said in a statement. “It protects the retirement system from abuse and ensures state employees are rewarded for their important investments in our state.”

State Treasurer Janet Cowell has claimed in the past that pension spiking in the state is limited to only the highest-paid state workers. Thus, the current legislation outlaws spiking for those workers by creating a “contributions cap”. The News & Observer explains:

The law creates a new method of identifying pension spiking through a contributions cap that is based on the actual amount of money state and local employees and employers put into the retirement system. Those hired before Jan. 1 would continue to receive the difference created through the pension spiking, but it would have to be paid for by that unit of government, not the retirement system. Those hired after Jan. 1, would have the choice of the employer paying, the employee paying or a reduced benefit.

The law also returns the pension vesting period for state and local employees to five years. Three years ago it was doubled to 10 years as a cost saving measure, but Cowell’s staff said the savings were minor, roughly $1 million a year, while making the state less competitive in the job market.

“Returning to a five-year vesting period is critical step in North Carolina becoming more competitive in recruitment and retention relative to other public and private employers,” Cowell said in the release.

 

Kentucky Pension Committee Recommends Measures For Funding Improvement, Other Policy Changes

Kentucky flag

Kentucky’s Public Pension Oversight Board, a panel of lawmakers that “assists the General Assembly with its review, analysis, and oversight” of the Kentucky Retirement Systems (KRS), has made 13 recommendations aimed at improving the health of KRS and altering other KRS policies.

A handful of the key recommendations, from the Courier-Journal:

– The General Assembly should secure additional money to stave off any insolvency problems in KERS non-hazardous — the largest pension plan for state workers, which has only 21 percent of the money it needs to cover benefits.

– The Kentucky Teachers’ Retirement System, along with pension plans for lawmakers and judges, should be reviewed by the oversight board as part of its official duties.

– KRS should better publicize its board meetings, particularly to employee, retiree and interest groups.

– The General Assembly should enact legislation to regulate how agencies withdraw from the pension system — a concern that has emerged amid the bankruptcy of Seven Counties Services, the community mental health center for the Louisville area.

More on the measures related to improving the system’s funding situation, from CN2:

Of 13 recommendations tentatively approved by the oversight board, two dealt directly with securing additional funding for KERS non-hazardous. One, submitted by Sen. Jimmy Higdon, R-Lebanon, would seek financing to maintain the plan’s solvency while the other, filed by Rep. Brent Yonts, D-Greenville, and Sen. Joe Bowen, R-Owensboro, would support increased funding to KRS and particularly KERS non-hazardous to improve its cash flow issues.

One other recommendation seeks to cut down pension “spiking”. Eliminating “spiking” is not likely to have a big effect on the system’s funding situation.

Retiree advocacy group Kentucky Government Retirees released this statement on the proposals dealing specifically with improving funding:

As stakeholders in Kentucky Retirement Systems, we were gratified that the Public Pension Oversight Board today approved a recommendation calling upon the General Assembly to provide additional funding to avert insolvency in the Kentucky Employees Retirement System non-hazardous fund. The nation’s worst-funded state pension fund desperately needs an infusion of funds above the employer contributions. We hope the 2015 General Assembly will make the difficult decision to act on this recommendation.

Moody’s: Voter Rejection of Prop. 487 Is “Credit Negative” For Phoenix

Entering Arizona sign

Last week, Phoenix voters shot down Proposition 487, the ballot measure that would have shifted the city’s non-public safety new hires into a 401(k)-style retirement plan.

Many public workers, and the city’s mayor, were happy with the result. But one credit rating agency was not.

A Moody’s report released Tuesday said the measure would have improved the city’s finances, and the results of the vote are a “credit negative” for Phoenix.

From the Arizona Republic:

“The vote is a credit negative for the city,” which is grappling with a $4.4 billion adjusted net pension liability, said Moody’s Investors Service. Phoenix has the sixth-highest adjusted pension shortfall relative to revenues among 50 large cities tracked by Moody’s.

[…]

According to the update by Moody’s analysts Tom Aaron and Don Steed, Phoenix actuaries projected the new plan would have increased city contributions by $358 million over 20 years but with savings that would have exceeded those outlays, especially if the underlying investments didn’t perform well.

The ballot measure could have saved the city up to $1.9 billion over 20 years, according to Moody’s, citing a city-council analysis. Cost savings would have derived from limiting the types of pay used to calculate benefits — which leads to the costly practice of “pension spiking” — eliminating supplemental retirement plans offered by the city and calculating pension benefits by spreading them over more years of employee salary, which tends to lower the payout.

But Moody’s admitted the measure would have incurred some extra costs if it had passed. Among the costs: legal expenses. From the Arizona Republic:

On the other hand, Moody’s noted that the measure, had it passed, likely would have triggered costly legal challenges. For example, one part of the proposition would have required only one retirement plan to be offered to newly hired employees, including those in public safety. That would have conflicted with a state law mandating participation in the Public Safety Personnel Retirement Plan, which covers police and fire employees throughout the state.

Moody’s didn’t change the city’s credit rating, however. It remains at Aa1.

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.

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.

Video: A Closer Look At Phoenix’s Proposition 487

Proposition 487 is a Phoenix ballot measure that would close off the city’s defined-benefit pension plan for new hires and instead shift them into a 401(k)-style system. The measure would also prohibit pension “spiking” practices.

Prop. 487 has been surrounded by debate about its true cost, and whether it would reduce death and disability benefits for public safety workers — even though the measure is not intended to change public safety benefits.

The video [above] tackles these issues, and others, in an analysis of the measure.