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The Gainesville Sun: City’s pension worsens, but officials expect a positive turn

Monday, August 12, 2013

In Detroit, a $3.5 billion unfunded pension obligation contributed to the country’s largest municipal bankruptcy.

In Sarasota, the mayor drew attention, and criticism from fellow commissioners late last month, for this declaration on the future effect of pension obligations: “It’s not a question of if we go bankrupt — it’s just a question of when and how.”

Across the country, the recession’s impact on the stock market, a growing number of retirees with longer life expectancy and strong retirement benefit packages have combined to spell dire circumstances for many municipal pension programs.

Gainesville’s pension plans for police/firefighters and general employees, which have historically been among the strongest performing in the state, have not been immune.

A plan is generally considered to be on solid financial footing if it is at least 80 percent funded.

From 2007 to 2012, the city’s general employee plan declined from 97 percent funded to 66 percent and now has about $137.6 million in unfunded liabilities.

The numbers, while on the decline, are better for the police and firefighters plan. It was more than 100 percent funded in 2007 and is now a little less than 83 percent funded, with about $38.9 million in unfunded liabilities.

For city officials, the more pressing concern in recent years has been the significant increase in the city’s required contribution as market losses sapped values, particularly for the general employees plan.

The city’s contribution rose from a little more than $4 million in the 2006 budget year to a projected $16.6 million in the upcoming 2014 budget year.

Seeing the writing on the wall, staff in 2011 brought to the City Commission proposed structural modifications to the plans.

“We saw where it was going when the numbers still looked good,” City Manager Russ Blackburn said.

With a green light from the City Commission, the city spent about two years negotiating with its five unions and has reached agreement with all but the fire union on changes that will have the most dramatic effect on new hires. Changes also were put in place for non-union employees, including managers, professionals and administrative personnel.

The city administration recently declared an impasse in contract talks with the fire union because the two sides could not reach agreement on pension changes.

Blackburn said the city administration feels the changes, over the years, will turn the tide and reduce the plans’ levels of unfunded liabilities. He said the changes are not expected to cut the city’s costs but to slow the rate of increase for the annual contribution to pensions.

City finance staff estimates that, over 30 years, the pension modifications will reduce the city’s projected required contributions by $232 million.

Florida State University’s LeRoy Collins Institute recently released a report looking at the best practices in municipal pension plans, and it provides a point of comparison for where Gainesville stands after the recent changes.

The report focused on five practices typically at play in better-performing plans: funding 100 percent of annual required contributions; requiring employees to contribute to their retirement; containing the cost-of-living adjustments retirees receive to their annual benefits; limiting “spiking” strategies that employees use to drive up the salary on which their retirement benefits will be based; and having realistic return on investment projections.

Fully funding annual obligations and requiring employees to contribute — 7 percent of their salaries for most and 7.5 percent for police and fire — have long been city practices. The recent changes to pension plans seek to rein in cost-of-living increases as well as the use of overtime or accrued sick leave and vacation to spike benefits.

The city does maintain a more aggressive expectation of its return on investment than the state pension plan — 8.5 percent compared with the state pension plan’s projected return of 7.75 percent.

The LeRoy Collins Institute report noted that critics of public pension plans feel the projected rate of return is often overly optimistic in light of the market plunge that followed the recession, resulting in a financial outlook that is more positive than a plan’s reality.

Blackburn said Gainesville’s plan is heavily invested in equities and that over the long term, the 8.5 percent return on investment has not been a reach.

“Our experience has been that we have returned at a higher level,” he said.

Carol Weissert, the director of the LeRoy Collins Institute, said while the recession contributed to problems with municipal pensions, it was by no means the only factor. Wages have increased, she said, increasing payouts. There are more retirees, and they are living longer, Weissert said. Meanwhile, the elimination of positions in the wake of the recession has fewer people paying into the plan. For Gainesville, the number of employees paying into the plan and the number of retirees receiving benefits are close to even.

For the police and firefighters plan, the 413 retirees receiving benefits exceeded the 372 employees paying into the plan, according to the audit for fiscal year 2012.

In a recent editorial in the Miami Herald, University of Miami law professor Stephen K. Halpert called for more sweeping changes to public-sector pensions. In an interview, he said the issue is “quite generous” benefits packages. He said the ability to retire after as little as 20 years and to put overtime and unused sick and vacation time toward benefits led to unsustainable obligations.

Among other things, Halpert called for a move that Gainesville did not make out of deference to its employees — moving away from a defined benefit plan that promises employees a specific monthly benefit at retirement. The alternative would be a defined contribution plan in which the employer still puts money toward retirement investments but where those investments go is largely determined by the employee — thus shifting risk from the employer to the employee.

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