BOF members pose pension ideas
Published 10:26 am, Wednesday, March 3, 2010
Editor's note: this is the first story in a series on the possibility of eliminating pensions for new town hires in place of a 401K plan or something similar.
The town of Fairfield's pension fund is an ever-growing expense. As more people retire and live longer, the bigger the financial burden gets. Less than a year ago, the once-mighty General Motors filed for bankruptcy. Two Board of Finance members, Robert Stone and Kenneth Brachfield, said that action was largely the result of GM being less a car company and more a pension and health care provider for their retirees.
Stone and Brachfeld don't ever want the town of Fairfield to be in a situation similar to GM and as such, they are supportive of eliminating pension plans (where an employee is guaranteed a set amount of money in retirement for however many years they worked) for new hires. Instead of a typical pension plan, Stone and Brachfeld would like to see new hires switched over to a 401K plan or something similar, where the employee contributes a certain amount of money and the employer (in this case the town) at least matches the contribution.
"The biggest driver of the town's long-term financial health is the structure of the pension and health care benefits paid to retirees," Brachfield said during a phone interview Sunday. Brachfield said the overwhelming majority of cities and states across the nation are still offering their employees pension plans when virtually all private companies have done away with pensions and now instead offer employees a defined contribution plan (aka 401K plan).
Brachfield said following World War II, pension plans were put in place for town and state workers because government workers were typically paid less than those working in the private sector. However, Brachfeld said times have changed and in some cases, town and state workers make more than private sector workers.
"The pay in the public sector is no longer so horrible that you have to give them something else to entice them," Brachfield said.
When it was suggested the possible elimination of a pension plan might not yield the best workers for town positions, Brachfeld argued that there will be nowhere else to go for the prospective employees, since jobs in the private sector don't offer a pension.
Stone added, "We can't be in the pension business forever. ... It's too much of a burden on taxpayers. If we continue on the path we're going, including the State of Connecticut, we'll either face catastrophic bankruptcy or we're going to raise taxes to unheard of heights just to fund them."
Stone said studies need to be done to see if certain employees are overcompensated.
"We have to study what other states are doing," he said.
Asked if maybe new police and fire personnel should be a potential exception to the possible elimination of the pension, since their jobs are more dangerous than someone working in Town Hall, Stone said every new hire should be treated equally.
"They want to do those jobs. They're not drafted," Stone said. "No exception. A town worker is a town worker." Stone added that police and fire personnel get a "ton of overtime."
The Town of Fairfield didn't have to put any money in its pension fund for a decade but it did for this current year, because of the current economy.
While the town's pension fund is down, First Selectman Ken Flatto said it's still about 85 percent funded and that, he said, is a lot better than other nearby communities. The pension budget line, Flatto said, reflects the actuaries' estimate of the amount required each year to fully fund pensions for both retirees and current employees. For the current budget year, that figure amounted to $1.5 million, Flatto said, and for the next budget year, that number has grown to $2.9 million. Flatto said three factors have caused that figure to rise: the drop in the financial market; becoming a victim in Bernie Madoff's Ponzi scheme; and liability -- pension cost estimates have slowly increased as more employees were added to the school system.
When Flatto was reached for a comment Monday afternoon on the suggestion of eliminating pensions for new town hires, he responded that he was currently involved in collective bargaining with all seven bargaining units and thus could not "make comments that relate to matters that could be part of collective bargaining."
"In general," he said, "there's a number of ideas our town bargaining team is reviewing regarding employee benefit structure and possible changes."
Flatto said that 100 percent of governments offer employees a pension benefit, but over the last three or four years, a few have started looking at alternative plans.
"Personally, I think that trend [of going over to a 401K plan] is probably going to increase," he said.
Stone said the state of Connecticut has the highest per-capita debt in the nation, is losing population, is not making anything, has no tourism, and is seen as a pass through to New York City or Boston. As such, something needs to be done regarding the pension structure, he said.
However, he said convincing the unions to do away with pensions won't exactly be an easy task.
"We need someone who is strong in negotiating contracts. It will take educating the public. It can't keep going on the way it is," Stone said. He added, "It's not just Fairfield. It's not just Connecticut."
While the Board of Finance does not have the power to make the change Stone and Brachfeld are hoping to see, the finance board can use its expertise and lobby for change. Also, the BOF can sit in on contract negotiations. In Fairfield, a town worker is vested after 10 years. Town workers can retire at 62, with the exception of Department of Public Works employees, who can retire at 59-and-a-half. Police and fire personnel can retire at 51, and get full benefits, provided they have logged at least 25 years on the job, according to Mary Carroll-Mirylees, director of human resources for the town.
Brachfeld believes if 401K plans are provided instead of pension plans, workers could still potentially have in retirement what they would have had with a pension plan. However, he admits the financial markets can be a dangerous place for someone who is not well-versed in navigating the "shark-filled waters of the investment world."
He suggested that perhaps Fairfield should do something similar to IBM, which provides its employees with access to independent, unbiased financial advisers and also provides a menu of investment choices, low risk and low cost.
Brachfield said the one good thing about a 401K plan is that "it's your money" and a town's financial status won't impact your ability to retrieve it. Also, Brachfield noted, it takes at least 10 years at a town or state job to become vested and earn a pension. Brachfield said he's never been at any single job for more than 10 years, "so I've benefitted from a 401K."
Brachfeld said union support for what he and Stone are advocating for will depend on the generosity of the 401K plan and how well it is explained to its members.
Other Board of Finance members were not yet willing to go on the record regarding the topic of replacing pensions with 401K plans for new hires.