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Officer Down

Wednesday, March 27, 2013

PENSION: While Systems Go Bust, Public Pension Elites Profit

--Most over the top pension recipients are either politically connected or were connected through the unions at the time they were working.
This is definitely not the majority in Illinois but the BGA has done an excellent job of bringing this problem to the open.
Although not as big as the politicians refusal to fund the pension funds for over 30 years these cases are a drag on the system just as well.
This needs to be prevented from happening in the future.--

Story at Better Government Association

Video at CBS2 Chicago


BGA’s new government retiree database of 400,000 reveals those getting big money.
By Andrew Schroedter/BGA
March 26, 2013 10:15 PM

Major public pension funds are teetering on the brink of financial disaster but it still pays to be a retired judge, state lawmaker, physician, union boss or suburban school district chief.

That’s among the major findings emerging from an in-depth examination of the Better Government Association’s new online public pension database, a searchable list of individual payments to more than 400,000 retirees of the state’s largest public-sector pensions including those in Illinois, Cook County and Chicago.

The BGA analysis found that 7,582, or roughly 2 percent of retirees throughout the state, reap public pensions of at least $100,000 a year. However, that small yet influential group sucks up a lot of cash – more than $922 million annually, or 7.6 percent of all yearly pension payouts, reveals the BGA database analysis of pension data ending in 2012.

In contrast, the bulk of pension payments, not including medical benefits, for most other rank-and-file city, county and state workers are more modest, ranging from $10,000 to $50,000 annually, according to the BGA analysis.

Why have public pensions fallen on hard financial times? There’s no shortage of reasons: Chronic under funding by the government, generous annual cost of living increases to retirees and overly ambitious investment gain projections by fund managers have dogged the funds for decades.

The result is that most major public-sector retirement funds in the city, county and state are now grappling with massive shortfalls and are running out of money to meet their obligations. Illinois’ unfunded pension liability is nearing $100 billion, while Cook County’s is almost $6 billion and Chicago’s is $26 billion, according to interviews and public records.

"Over decades we’ve allowed a gap to exist between what is promised and what can be paid," says state Sen. Daniel Biss, (D-Evanston), who is proposing state pension reform legislation. "That’s a painful problem."

Nevertheless, the pension checks keep going out the door. Among the findings gleaned from the new BGA pension database:

    The highest public employee pension in the state goes to Tapas Das Gupta, a cancer surgeon and professor at the University of Illinois at Chicago. His annual State Universities Retirement System (SURS) of Illinois pension is $426,885, according to public records.
    The next four highest pensions also go to physicians and medical professors who contributed to SURS: Edward Abraham ($414,709); Riad Barmada ($397,919); Mahmood Mafee ($370,140); and Herand Abcarian ($338,730).
    Union officials Liberato "Al" Naimoli and Dennis Gannon collect two of the highest City of Chicago pensions at $176,033 and $167,896 respectively. Naimoli, president of Cement Workers Union Local 76, and Gannon, former president of the Chicago Federation of Labor, took advantage of a loophole in the state pension code that allowed them to receive taxpayer-funded retirement benefits based on their higher union salaries. That loophole has since been closed.
    Henry Bangser has the most lucrative Teachers’ Retirement System (TRS) of the State of Illinois pension at $269,531 a year. The former New Trier Township High School District 203 superintendent may not have ranked so high if not for the 20 percent pay hikes he received in three of the last four years before his 2006 retirement, spiking his pension payout.
    The highest Illinois Municipal Retirement Fund (IMRF) pension goes to Elizabeth Kutska, a former park district worker whose annual benefit of $250,446 was based on her much higher salary as head of Lisle-based Park District Risk Management Agency. PDRMA provides insurance to park districts throughout the state. It isn’t a governmental agency – it’s what known as an "intergovernmental cooperative" and therefore can participate in the state’s second largest retirement fund, according to IMRF and PDRMA officials.

(The BGA contacted every pensioner named in this story but the majority declined to be interviewed.)

The BGA also found a majority of the top pensions were concentrated in three funds -- the state's judges and General Assembly Retirement System has 542 retirees, or 74.2 percent of members collecting six-figure benefits, followed by SURS with 2,107, or 4.1 percent, and TRS with 3,503, or 3.8 percent, according to the analysis.

That’s a lot of money rolling out the door but observers say those and other big pensions are just one of the many challenges that must be addressed.

"It certainly doesn’t help financially, or with people’s perception," says Tim Blair, executive secretary of the pension systems for state workers, judges and General Assembly members. "But 1 percent of these folks aren’t driving the problem."

Cook County Commissioner Bridget Gainer (D-Chicago) says underfunding and generous cost of living increases deserve a greater share of the blame.

"Those are big numbers," says Gainer, chairman of the county’s pension committee. "But some of these are for people who are in the top of their field."

Yet, Blair and Gainer both acknowledge reforms are needed.

The BGA analysis found the total payout, not including health care costs, for the 16 largest pension systems throughout the state is more than $12.1 billion a year.

The output itself isn’t a problem, it’s the shortage of cash needed to cover the bills. The five state-funded pension systems, for example, have a funding ratio of 39 percent - a minimum of 80 percent is considered healthy - even though total payments to the funds more than doubled to $5.1 billion this fiscal year, from $2.4 billion in fiscal year 2009, according to the Governor's Office of Management and Budget.

Likewise, the City of Chicago projects pension payments will soar to $2.4 billion in 2017, from $692 million in 2012.

So far, the General Assembly and Gov. Pat Quinn haven’t found a solution to the burgeoning pension crisis and continue to search for answers during the current legislative session.

Quinn has repeatedly said the State of Illinois’ pension debts are growing by $17 million a day.

Broadly, the proposed reforms include higher employee contributions, raising the retirement age and reducing cost of living increases.

Opposing many of the prospective remedies are public-sector labor unions, whose members could see benefits trimmed. Labor leaders blame lawmakers for repeatedly paying too little, or nothing, toward government’s share of the pension obligations while workers religiously paid for their retirements.

Also, some groups are concerned that pension changes won’t stand up to a legal challenge since the Illinois Constitution protects state pension benefits.

Some changes have been made. In 2010 the state passed a pension law that provides reduced benefits for all state workers hired on or after Jan. 1, 2011.

Those reforms "make a big difference," says IMRF executive director Louis Kosiba. "The costs are coming down."

But the consensus is more must be done.

The BGA has been working to highlight the challenges facing the major taxpayer-funded pension systems including a report last year that documented TRS paid more $1.3 billion in fees to financial managers over the past decade yet reaped a small return on its investments—a mere 3.7 percent excluding cost of fees that was far below its 8.5 percent annual target return.

In addition to the online pension database, which will be upgraded and expanded to include more pension-related information, the BGA has a recently introduced an upgraded payroll database with information on the salaries of 500,000 government workers.