Friday, December 28, 2007

Defined Benefits... Pension Woes...

Across the country governments are having major, major problems with their defined benefit pension plans. They are running from them like they are killer bees swarming. Not so in Fayette County. Our "leaders" voted to implement a plan. Yep, they are building hives to house the bees. The taxpayers are the ones who will someday feel the mighty stings.

Here's some more buzz on defined benefit woes:

Pension Dissension
FASB gets an earful as CFOs protest key details of pension-accounting reform.
Russ Banham, CFO MagazineAugust 1, 2006
Companies generally pride themselves on being forward-looking, but many are balking at the idea of looking ahead to future pension obligations and affixing a firm price tag on today's balance sheet. That has emerged as the biggest, but by no means only, bone of contention as companies, the Financial Accounting Standards Board, Congress, the Securities and Exchange Commission, and others grapple with pension-accounting reform.

Commentary: The Funding Crisis in Municipal Pensions
"Unfortunately, many municipalities in America face the consequences of underfunded pension plans, escalating benefit costs, and reduced income on investments. It's a situation that must be addressed immediately, before a crisis ensues."

San Diego/city: Little-Known Pension Problem Is Brewing and Will Soon Reach a Boiling Point (column)

$300 BILLION IN UNDERFUNDING – The Pension Benefit Guaranty Corporation reports that underfunding of U.S. pension plans has reached about $300 billion. Falling stock prices have increased the shortfall from the "low $100 billion" just a year ago. The Treasury is expected to issue proposed regulations allowing employers to convert defined benefit pension plans to cash balance plans. The AARP retiree's lobby is keeping a close watch to try to insure older workers don't get short changed in these transactions.

Lifting the Lid: Alaska case may spur more state pensions to sue
BOSTON, Dec 14 (Reuters) - Alaska's $1.8 billion lawsuit against Mercer accusing the consulting firm of pension calculation errors sets the stage for a showdown between U.S. government retirement funds and private service providers.

You really should read the articles if you have an interest in seeing what the future of our county may be. In particular, the last article, "Lifting the Lid" is going to have major repercussions on the future of pension plans depending on the outcome. One "defense" that Mercer touted is that employees retiring earlier than expected caused a shortfall in funds.

Now here in Fayette County, we have a LOT of employees who are looking forward to retirement. In fact, most, if not all, of the employees on the committee studying defined benefits are in spitting distance of retirement.

There are well over 700 employees currently working for the county in some capacity. How can anyone logically calculate how many of those will opt to retire in any given year. I know there are "models," but as I read the articles on DB problems, over and over I see them whining that more people retired than they expected. Take a look at the problems across the country and tell me the sales folks knew what they were talking about as they spouted numbers.

I heard, but don't know for a fact as the final plans haven't been completed, that county employees will be vested after five years of employment with the county. What that means is that someone who works for the county for five years, then moves on, will be collecting retirement from the county when they hit age 55, 60 or 65 depending on how they structure the plan.

As the county grows, taxes are going to become more of a problem. We're a bedroom community. We don't have an interstate running through here to make this a highly attractive place for industry to locate. As the county grows, there will be more people working for the county. Although they've touted the DB plan as something that will help attract and keep employees, most don't really start thinking retirement until they're in their later working years. We're going to have turnover. We're going to be paying out more and more for retirement. We're going to be just like any other county, state or business who is underfunding their retirement. We're going to have huge problems down the road.

The problem is that the guys who are building that bee hive will have filled their jars with honey and moved on. Some of them will be living on the retirement Fayette County taxpayers are funding. Yep, the Commissioners will be eligible for the self-same retirement as county employees if they stick around for a second term. I don't begrudge them a retirement, I don't begrudge any of the county employees a good retirement. They had an award winning plan in place that wasn't going to stick us with a huge bill somewhere down the road.

In every city, county, state and business where the DB plans are in trouble it's not just the taxpayers who hurt, the employees suffer, too. They face reduced benefits or even no benefits in some cases.

I keep coming back to the million dollar question (and the tab will be higher than a million over time): WHY?

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