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Tuesday, November 07, 2006

Little Help from My Friends

For the past several weeks leading up to today's election, there has been a media blitz from reporters and op-ed writers to remind voters that "PERS is a mess". My complaints about the Oregonian's Betsy Hammond are well-known by now, but on October 30th, the Eugene Register Guard published an Op-Ed piece by Fred Starkey, reputedly a former muckity muck with Shearson Loeb on Wall Street. The piece was about as factually out-dated as one could find and many of us wrung our hands in despair as we contemplated how we could turn the anti-PERS media tide around. How could we get the message out that the "PERS Problem" was non-existent now - between the "reforms" and the great stock returns in the past three years, PERS had righted itself, employer rates were dropping, and the system was fully solvent. Mr. Starkey managed to turn that message on its head using outdated as well as incorrect statistics from god-knows-where. Thankfully, PERS Board Member Tom Grimsley published his own reply to Mr. Starkey's misinformation in yesterday's Eugene Register Guard. I repeat Mr. Grimsley's piece here in its entirety:

After reforms, state retirement system on sound financial footing
By Thomas Grimsley
Published: Monday, November 6, 2006

Fred Starkey's Oct. 30 guest viewpoint, "Just say no to PERS
disaster," does a disservice to taxpayers and voters with outdated,
incorrect or misleading information.

The Oregon Public Employees Retirement System is on firm financial
footing, and costs to school districts, local governments and the
state are declining. Public employers are paying less as a result of
PERS reform and good investment earnings. Reform alone has saved
Oregon taxpayers close to $1 billion in the last three years.

It's true that in 2003, PERS faced financial difficulty and had a
significant gap in funding to provide the pensions promised to public
employees. However, PERS reforms approved in 2003, good investment
returns and employer pension obligation bonds dramatically
strengthened the system. Unlike Starkey's dire portrayal, the facts
show a system that is financially stable - as recently confirmed by
the system's independent actuary, Mercer Human Resource Consulting.

Starkey fails to mention that PERS is currently funded at 104 percent
when counting employer pension obligation bonds (compared to a
national average funding level of 85 percent for all public pension
systems). Even without counting employer pension obligation bonds,
PERS has banked 91 cents of every dollar needed to fund member
retirement benefits.

Employer contribution rates for PERS members will average less than 15
percent of payroll beginning July 1, 2007. Rates for many employers
will be about half that amount due to the investment leveraging effect
of their pension obligation bonds and advance deposits.

Starkey asserts, "25 percent to 30 percent of the budget for each
Oregon government entity is spent on pension costs." Not so. PERS
costs represent less than 5 percent of total state and local spending
in Oregon.

Starkey stated that PERS costs for the city of Springfield's Police
Department equal 42 percent of its budget. Springfield currently pays
less than 13 percent of the city's covered payroll, which is just a
portion of its entire budget. The Rainbow Water District's employer
rate is likewise less than 15 percent of payroll. The Eugene Water &
Electric Board's employer rate is currently higher because of unique
factors related to that entity, and not to the PERS system in general.

Starkey correctly recognizes the importance of earnings to PERS' financial
stability. But here again, his opinions are not supported by facts.

According to a 2006 study conducted by the PERS actuary, the expected
long-term investment return on PERS assets should average 8 percent,
which is the amount needed to cover costs. This expectation is not out
of line with other U.S.-based pension systems.

Moreover, PERS investment returns have averaged about 11 percent per
year over the past 35 years through a fully diversified portfolio
managed by the Oregon Investment Council.

For readers who are interested in facts rather than opinions, the PERS
Web site - http://oregon.gov/PERS - has a document titled "PERS by the
Numbers" that accurately reflects the system's funded status and
benefit levels as of last year. PERS will be updating this document
shortly with information from the most recent actuarial valuation.

Thomas Grimsley of Eugene is a member of the PERS Board of Trustees.
He has taught in the Bethel School District since 1981, and has served
as a member of the district's Joint Benefits and Insurance Committee
for the past 17 years.

Copyright © 2006 — The Register-Guard, Eugene, Oregon, USA RSS

On behalf of thousands of PERS members and retirees, thank you Mr. Grimsley for taking the time to provide this important and refreshing antidote to the constant media pummelling we've been taking for the past half dozen years. Now if some investigative reporters would do their job and publish the straight facts, unselectively, perhaps the wider Oregon public might get the message.

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