The looming problem of Public Sector Pensions

Forbes magazine has a very insightful article on the absurd riches enjoyed by public sector workers- the ranks of which will clearly explode under President Obama and a Democratic Congress.

The article’s focus in on very generous “gilt-edged” pensions that public sector employees enjoy upon (usually very early) retirement. These pensions are often based on the last days of employment-when the government’s custom is to artificially boost the employee's regular salary so the worker enjoys outsized benefits for life. The article clears up some common misconceptions :


 In public-sector America things just get better and better. The common presumption is that public servants forgo high wages in exchange for safe jobs and benefits. The reality is they get all three. State and local government workers get paid an average of $25.30 an hour, which is 33% higher than the private sector's $19, according to Bureau of Labor Statistics data. Throw in pensions and other benefits and the gap widens to 42%.

For New York City's 281,000 employees, average compensation has risen 63% since 2000 to $107,000 a year. New Jersey teaching veterans receive $80,000 to $100,000 for ten months' work. In California prison guards can sock away $300,000 a year with overtime pay.

Four in five public-sector workers have lifetime pensions, versus only one in five in the private sector. The difference shifts huge risks from government to private-sector workers.

NYC socked away $20,000 per employee last year for pension benefits. Since 2000 its pension funding bill has risen ninefold, from $615 million to $5.6 billion in 2008. That's more than the city spends on transport, health care, parks, libraries, museums and City University of New York combined, says the Citizens Budget Commission.

These benefits are so sacrosanct, and such a source of union power, that labor bosses have turned them into the third rail for NYC politicians--touching them is suicide. That goes for the benefits not only of existing workers but of future ones as well.

"We have far less to spend on core services, such as public safety, education, parks and senior centers," Mayor Michael Bloomberg wrote in December of the city's pension costs. "That defies common sense, and it's hurting our city."

The article also delves into the fact that pensions don’t reflect reality-in more ways than one.

Cops and firemen initially were granted early retirement because their work was physically demanding and they tended to die young. These days they live as long as everyone else, but early retirement lives on for an ever expanding pool of public workers. So do liberal disability rules. Nevada law 617.457 decrees that heart disease among uniformed safety workers is job-related. The medical reality, says the American Heart Association, is that a fireman gets heart disease from diet, lack of exercise or genes, not from dashing into burning buildings. Still, veteran Las Vegas firemen hobbled by heart disease can collect an inflation-protected $40,000 a year for life on top of their pension. That applies even if they're healthy enough to work in another occupation.

Michael Hirth, a 55-year-old fireman in Hallendale Beach, Fla., has a nifty deal known as a Deferred Retirement Option Program. It enables public employees to "retire" and stay in their old jobs. Hirth is receiving both a pension and a salary for the same job. He's even allowed to direct income from the pension into a fund that guarantees an 8% return as long as he works. (The only way ordinary folk get guaranteed returns is with something backed by the U.S. Treasury. Treasurys pay 0% to 3%.) If the fund fails to achieve that hurdle, taxpayers will just have to kick in the difference.

At least, they can sleep at night-regardless of the stock or job market. But don’t we hear the teachers’ unions complain about low pay for teachers?

Steven Beatty is the kind of social studies teacher you hope your kid gets. The Bridgewater, N.J. high school instructor has a solid command of history, took grad school courses on his own time and clearly loves teaching. But Beatty isn't in it just for the students. At 38 he earns $80,000 a year, nearly double New Jersey's average, and pays only 5.3% of that toward his pension. He can retire at 60 with full benefits and, should he so desire, continue teaching part-time.
Such pampering helps explain New Jersey's infamy as the most taxed state in the nation. Taxes are almost certain to go even higher, thanks to a bipartisan tradition of caving in to public employees' pension demands and then not funding them.

The teachers’ unions are a vital base for the Democratic Party; they fund all levels of political races; and often volunteer for phone banks, leafleting, and get out the vote efforts; one-third of the delegates to the Democratic National Convention are teachers. Do you think politicians will stand up to them or stand up for the taxpayer?


Don’t we hear a lot about greed these days? Well, one sector seems to engage in scams to boost their already generous benefits:

All this would be infuriating enough if public employees were merely retiring with pensions that paid out a reasonable percentage of their working wages. Instead, they have found legions of ways to boost payments well beyond those levels. In New York, Philadelphia and several other cities police officers rack up huge amounts of overtime in their last two or three years on the job to goose the base pay used to calculate lifetime pension benefits.

Florida goes a step further. In Palm Beach and two other nearby counties, cops count work as security guards for Wal-Mart and other moonlighting toward public pension benefits. The private employers contribute the same portion of gross pay to pension benefits as do local governments. Taxpayers, of course, are the ones at risk if those contributions don't yield the expected investment returns, or unions and pols jack up benefits even further.

Florida's state pension plan was fully funded a year ago. Now it's at least $28 billion, or 22%, in the hole. "Taxpayers are on the hook," says Susan Mangiero, who maintains Pensionriskmatters.com, a blog highlighting pension plan issues.
Until a few years ago Illinois permitted police to receive "sergeant for a day" promotions in which they were bumped up a pay grade the day before they retired and their pension calculated on the basis of that final salary. With pensions seriously underfunded in 2003, recently arrested and impeached Governor Rod Blagojevich rolled the dice and issued "pension obligation bonds." The idea was that Illinois would issue debt at a cost of 5.1% and then earn 8.5% or so investing the proceeds. The plan turned into a disaster when the market tanked last year. Now short roughly $60 billion, Illinois has barely half of what it needs to cover future pension obligations.

There are more scams outline in this superb article that should be placed in every taxpayer’s mailbox.

One  former public sector employee who is disgusted with his state of affairs says the prevailing attitude seems to be :

"It's just taxpayers' money, so nobody cares."

But the problem is manifold. Unfunded and ridiculous pension benefits will have to be met somehow-that will be us, our children, and grandchildren. It gets worse:

They're creating a nasty social problem as well. America, in case you hadn't noticed, is dividing into two nations. The 22.5-million-strong public sector (that includes retirees) is growing ever larger, and enjoying ever greater wages and benefits often guaranteed by state constitutions.
Forbes magazine has a very insightful article on the absurd riches enjoyed by public sector workers- the ranks of which will clearly explode under President Obama and a Democratic Congress.

The article’s focus in on very generous “gilt-edged” pensions that public sector employees enjoy upon (usually very early) retirement. These pensions are often based on the last days of employment-when the government’s custom is to artificially boost the employee's regular salary so the worker enjoys outsized benefits for life. The article clears up some common misconceptions :


 In public-sector America things just get better and better. The common presumption is that public servants forgo high wages in exchange for safe jobs and benefits. The reality is they get all three. State and local government workers get paid an average of $25.30 an hour, which is 33% higher than the private sector's $19, according to Bureau of Labor Statistics data. Throw in pensions and other benefits and the gap widens to 42%.

For New York City's 281,000 employees, average compensation has risen 63% since 2000 to $107,000 a year. New Jersey teaching veterans receive $80,000 to $100,000 for ten months' work. In California prison guards can sock away $300,000 a year with overtime pay.

Four in five public-sector workers have lifetime pensions, versus only one in five in the private sector. The difference shifts huge risks from government to private-sector workers.

NYC socked away $20,000 per employee last year for pension benefits. Since 2000 its pension funding bill has risen ninefold, from $615 million to $5.6 billion in 2008. That's more than the city spends on transport, health care, parks, libraries, museums and City University of New York combined, says the Citizens Budget Commission.

These benefits are so sacrosanct, and such a source of union power, that labor bosses have turned them into the third rail for NYC politicians--touching them is suicide. That goes for the benefits not only of existing workers but of future ones as well.

"We have far less to spend on core services, such as public safety, education, parks and senior centers," Mayor Michael Bloomberg wrote in December of the city's pension costs. "That defies common sense, and it's hurting our city."

The article also delves into the fact that pensions don’t reflect reality-in more ways than one.

Cops and firemen initially were granted early retirement because their work was physically demanding and they tended to die young. These days they live as long as everyone else, but early retirement lives on for an ever expanding pool of public workers. So do liberal disability rules. Nevada law 617.457 decrees that heart disease among uniformed safety workers is job-related. The medical reality, says the American Heart Association, is that a fireman gets heart disease from diet, lack of exercise or genes, not from dashing into burning buildings. Still, veteran Las Vegas firemen hobbled by heart disease can collect an inflation-protected $40,000 a year for life on top of their pension. That applies even if they're healthy enough to work in another occupation.

Michael Hirth, a 55-year-old fireman in Hallendale Beach, Fla., has a nifty deal known as a Deferred Retirement Option Program. It enables public employees to "retire" and stay in their old jobs. Hirth is receiving both a pension and a salary for the same job. He's even allowed to direct income from the pension into a fund that guarantees an 8% return as long as he works. (The only way ordinary folk get guaranteed returns is with something backed by the U.S. Treasury. Treasurys pay 0% to 3%.) If the fund fails to achieve that hurdle, taxpayers will just have to kick in the difference.

At least, they can sleep at night-regardless of the stock or job market. But don’t we hear the teachers’ unions complain about low pay for teachers?

Steven Beatty is the kind of social studies teacher you hope your kid gets. The Bridgewater, N.J. high school instructor has a solid command of history, took grad school courses on his own time and clearly loves teaching. But Beatty isn't in it just for the students. At 38 he earns $80,000 a year, nearly double New Jersey's average, and pays only 5.3% of that toward his pension. He can retire at 60 with full benefits and, should he so desire, continue teaching part-time.
Such pampering helps explain New Jersey's infamy as the most taxed state in the nation. Taxes are almost certain to go even higher, thanks to a bipartisan tradition of caving in to public employees' pension demands and then not funding them.

The teachers’ unions are a vital base for the Democratic Party; they fund all levels of political races; and often volunteer for phone banks, leafleting, and get out the vote efforts; one-third of the delegates to the Democratic National Convention are teachers. Do you think politicians will stand up to them or stand up for the taxpayer?


Don’t we hear a lot about greed these days? Well, one sector seems to engage in scams to boost their already generous benefits:

All this would be infuriating enough if public employees were merely retiring with pensions that paid out a reasonable percentage of their working wages. Instead, they have found legions of ways to boost payments well beyond those levels. In New York, Philadelphia and several other cities police officers rack up huge amounts of overtime in their last two or three years on the job to goose the base pay used to calculate lifetime pension benefits.

Florida goes a step further. In Palm Beach and two other nearby counties, cops count work as security guards for Wal-Mart and other moonlighting toward public pension benefits. The private employers contribute the same portion of gross pay to pension benefits as do local governments. Taxpayers, of course, are the ones at risk if those contributions don't yield the expected investment returns, or unions and pols jack up benefits even further.

Florida's state pension plan was fully funded a year ago. Now it's at least $28 billion, or 22%, in the hole. "Taxpayers are on the hook," says Susan Mangiero, who maintains Pensionriskmatters.com, a blog highlighting pension plan issues.
Until a few years ago Illinois permitted police to receive "sergeant for a day" promotions in which they were bumped up a pay grade the day before they retired and their pension calculated on the basis of that final salary. With pensions seriously underfunded in 2003, recently arrested and impeached Governor Rod Blagojevich rolled the dice and issued "pension obligation bonds." The idea was that Illinois would issue debt at a cost of 5.1% and then earn 8.5% or so investing the proceeds. The plan turned into a disaster when the market tanked last year. Now short roughly $60 billion, Illinois has barely half of what it needs to cover future pension obligations.

There are more scams outline in this superb article that should be placed in every taxpayer’s mailbox.

One  former public sector employee who is disgusted with his state of affairs says the prevailing attitude seems to be :

"It's just taxpayers' money, so nobody cares."

But the problem is manifold. Unfunded and ridiculous pension benefits will have to be met somehow-that will be us, our children, and grandchildren. It gets worse:

They're creating a nasty social problem as well. America, in case you hadn't noticed, is dividing into two nations. The 22.5-million-strong public sector (that includes retirees) is growing ever larger, and enjoying ever greater wages and benefits often guaranteed by state constitutions.