By Yaël Ossowski | Florida Watchdog
ORLANDO— Mayors from cities across the United States have traded the heated council meetings and stressful budget negotiations of their respective municipalities for the sunshine and amusement parks of central Florida.
But despite the scores of elected municipal leaders attending the 80th annual U.S. Conference of Mayors in Orlando, the official agenda forgoes any mention of a growing menace confronting local governments: the growing burden of public-sector pension and benefit liabilities.
Reviewing the 30-page agenda reveals speeches and assembled committees exploring adolescent bullying, the importance of art education, youth obesity, and a forum to showcase the “many unique approaches” to using social media websites such as Twitter, Facebook and YouTube.
There are discussions on reconciling religious communities, expanding access to healthy foods and handling vacant properties, all squeezed between trips to SeaWorld, Universal Studios and Walt Disney World.
The conference, in downtown Orlando, ends its four-day run today. Officially, chief elected officials from more than 1,000 major American cities gathered to discuss urban policy, strengthening ties to the federal government and creating a forum of ideas and information, according to the organization’s mission posted on its website.
But of the 115 proposed resolutions to be voted on by members — on such subjects as bicycle-sharing, climate change protections and reproductive rights for women — only one makes even passing reference to public-sector pension reform.
That proposal, put forth by Mayors Scott Smith of Mesa, Ariz. and Jerry Sanders of San Diego, Calif., calls on the U.S. Department of Treasury to offer “favorable tax treatment” to public retirement plans — a far cry from the reform being demanded of city councils and state governments across the country.
Earlier this month in California, the state with the country’s worst accounting in terms of public-sector pension funds, sweeping referenda took place in San Diego and San Jose, the state’s second- and third-largest cities, where more than two-thirds of voters agreed to overhaul the cities’ current pension plans for municipal workers.
In an interview Friday morning on CNN’s “Starting Point,” U.S. Conference of Mayors president and Los Angeles Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa took the time to dabble in federal politics, criticizing presumptive GOP presidential nominee Mitt Romney‘s economic policies and those of the Republican-led House, without mention of the critical pension reforms being debated in neighboring cities and across the nation.
Speaking to reporters at the conference Thursday, Atlanta Mayor Kasim Reed revealed that municipalities across the country are dealing with more than $200 billion in aggregate unfunded pension liabilities, a conservative estimate in the face of the rattled $3.7 trillion municipal bond market.
David Matkin, an assistant professor of public policy at Florida State University‘s LeRoy Collins Institute, who researches municipal pensions in Florida, said he was disappointed public-sector pension reform was absent from the agenda.
“We’ve seen the bankruptcies in California and the continuing budget problems in cities across the country, so it’s a wonder that they wouldn’t bring it up in such a large forum,” Matkin told Florida Watchdog.
“In the League of Cities meetings and gatherings here in Florida, pension reform is always at the top of the list — it not being discussed in Orlando really surprises me.”
He revealed that he previously joined other researchers attempting to lobby the Conference of Mayors to consider the topic on the agenda, but it wasn’t given priority in the end.
“We’ll be publishing more work soon detailing the larger trends in public-sector pensions, retirees, pensioners and taxpayer contributions,” said Matkin, adding that the next larger burden facing cities may be the health care and insurance subsidies enjoyed by public employees. “These are big liabilities that haven’t really yet been addressed or monitored.”