By Yaël Ossowski | Florida Watchdog
ST. PETERSBURG — Huge gaping holes in public pension funding didn’t arise from the abyss of the recent economic crisis, but instead have been growing larger and larger over time and threaten the budgetary health of every city in the Sunshine State.
That was the message of Florida State University’s Leroy Collins Institute on Wednesday, as it unveiled its latest take on the toxic economic state of public-sector pensions in Florida’s cities and towns.
The new report reveals that, despite the claims of public-sector unions, the benefits promised to county and city workers over the past few decades lie at the heart of the current pension mess, not the financial tsunami of 2008 which has so far received a majority of the blame along with reform-hungry politicians.
“We see in this report, over time, there are some troubling trends,” said Carol Weissert, director of the Leory Collins Institute at Florida State University, at a news conference in Tallahassee.
The problem of unfunded pension liabilities, according to researchers, is a “problem that has been years in the making,” pointing to a flawed model that has been too generous without asking for more in return.
“Asset values have stayed pretty constant over the past two years but liabilities have continued to climb. We expect that underfunding is further,” said David Matkin, an associate professor of public policy at the institute. “Discussions about structural repairs to municipal pension problems are needed because of long-trend problems.”
This counters claims by many public-sector unions which blame the economic turmoil of the stock market over the past four years for renewed efforts to downsize public pensions amidst shrinking municipal budgets.
“Pensions have been financially viable for 70 years and were on solid financial ground until the stock market crash,” writes the Service Employees International Union on its Fact Check website. “The economic crisis — and the Wall Street excesses and corporate abuses that drove it — has put a secure retirement at risk for everyone.”
SEIU did not have an immediate comment for this story.
“Those that are getting into fiscal challenges, particularly out West, are deciding whether it’s reasonable to continue to (put) increasing (shares) of their (budgets) towards these pension obligations,” said Matkin, referring to the worst case scenarios of California cities San Bernardino, Mammoth Lakes and Stockton.
Stockton was the largest city in the nation’s history to declare bankruptcy in June of this year.
“The main reason the report is helpful (is) because there are a lot of people who want to wait on the sidelines,” said Matkin. “This current problem is the worsening of an ongoing problem. It’s a systematic issue that needs to be addressed.”
One readily identifiable problem addressed by the institute is that retired participants in police and fire pension plans have more than doubled in the past five years alone, along with retirees living longer and requiring more care into old age.
“Local governments are picking up the increase in annual pension costs — especially for public safety plans,” notes the report.
Researchers also find that 2010 was the first year where payouts exceeded contributions, sparking concerns that will resonate with many in economically strapped cities and towns in the Sunshine State.
Alex Lewy, a city commissioner for Hallandale Beach, told Florida Watchdog that his city is on top of the pension issue, mentioning his attendance at a future “Trustee School” hosted by the Florida Public Pension Trustees Association.
The association is tasked with “providing education and information for the public pension system and protecting Defined Benefit Pension Plans,” according to its website, and offers seminars and courses on pension administration and plan risk management.
A representative for FPPTA could not be reached for comment.
Yaël Ossowski is Florida Bureau Chief for Watchdog.org. Contact him at Yael@FloridaWatchdog.org.