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Sunday, September 25, 2011

Midnight in the City of Destruction

Just sitting around contemplating the potential end of summer.  I've received a number of thoughtful emails about the impending release of retirees' names and monthly benefit amounts.  These emails provoke some interesting notions.  I thought I'd run a few up the flagpole and see what holds.  Bear in mind that these aren't all my thoughts, but are the thoughts of some others that I've shamelessly borrowed because they deserve an airing.

  • There are three cases awaiting final rulings before the Oregon Supreme Court.  These are Arken, Robinson, and White.  Decisions should be forthcoming in all these cases sometime before the end of the year, and there is no reason to expect that they might not come down in the next few weeks.  [This is a statement of fact.  Implications and questions follow]
  • Assuming the decisions come down before November, will PERS be able to adjust the benefit levels to reflect the court's judgements and orders?  If the court holds for Arken, Robinson, and White, the benefit levels of retirees affected by those cases would rise.  On the contrary, if the court rules against Arken and White, but upholds Robinson, the current figures are accurate.  If the court rules against Arken, White, and Robinson, all Window retiree benefits will be reduced by the amount necessary for the "overpayment" of benefits based on the 1999 earnings.  Has PERS anticipated how to factor in these variables?
  • The Robinson case holds that the amount still owed by Window retirees can't be collected.  If we lose the Robinson case, will PERS adjust our benefits downward BEFORE reporting to the Oregonian and Statesman Journal.  If not, will they inform both papers that all Window retirees have a significant debt to repay?
  • Similarly, if the decisions don't come down before the first release of information, but come down before the second release, will PERS update the first set of information and inform the papers that they (they papers) are using incorrect information?  Similarly, will they adjust the benefits upward if we win the lottery between the first and second information dumps?
  • Are the newspapers getting only the information on individuals receiving a monthly benefit, or will the information on single and double lump-sum also be released.
  • Which benefit amount will be released?  The Option 1 benefit, or the actual benefit, which includes survivor options (in most cases)?


These are just a few of the questions that wander through my mailbox and through the corridors of my brain.  There are so many wildcards out there that I am completely baffled how PERS and the newspapers can expect the information to be completely accurate and up-to-date.  I expect the whole release process to be a cluster f**k for retirees as no matter what PERS releases, it is likely to be partially or totally inaccurate.  I don't understand why the parties couldn't wait for the court cases now pending before the OSC to be finally decided and the rulings implemented.

Friday, September 23, 2011

I Can't Take It No More

I've put together a brief survey to give OUR organization some idea about what we think of the new release of data.  Please take a few minutes to read and take the survey located at:http://www.surveymonkey.com/s/P9WMVN5 .  It will be your chance to provide valuable information.


Monday, September 19, 2011

The Garden of Gethsemane

Both the Oregonian and the Register-Guard are whooping it up that they finally "won" a victory over PERS.  Their victory includes the release of names and amounts of PERS pensions paid out by November 2011.  Later in March 2012, the same newspapers will receive additional information on those same retirees (ALL OF THEM) including employer, final salary before retirement, method of retirement calculation (like we had a choice), and years of service.  The argument used by the newspapers to get this information is that PERS is a public agency, bound by open records, and that PERS recipients are being paid with taxpayer dollars and their information is not private.  Let's examine these claims:

  • All retirees are paid with taxpayer money.  FALSE.  There are 900 agencies contributing to PERS.  Some of these agencies are small, some are huge.  Many agencies - Higher Education and SAIF, for example - receive relatively little money from the state and its taxpayers.  The money to fund those agencies largely comes from fees, tuition, grants, contracts, foundations.  In Higher Education, the agency I'm most familiar with, tuition money alone covers virtually all of the costs of faculty and staff.  All salary and benefits are paid from the tuition and fees the students voluntarily pay to receive services from the University faculty.  The same is true of the Community Colleges.  The state money that comes to these agencies is used largely for upkeep and maintenance.  So, the money that passes through the hands of the students (perhaps from their parents, perhaps not), ends up in the hands of the faculty and staff.  We are public employees only in the sense that the agency we work for is a "public agency", but our salary and benefits do NOT come from public funds.  There are many, many agencies whose funding comes entirely or nearly entirely from user fees, not taxpayer money.  None of these employees should have their records exposed.
  • The Oregonian and Register Guard "won" a victory.  FALSE again.  The newspapers bludgeoned a settlement out of PERS.  There is no legal jurisdiction that has ruled on the legality of this release.  The judge who received the consolidated cases merely signed off on the settlement because that was the only way the cases could be dismissed.  A true "victory" would have required that a court registered a legal decision on this release of information and told PERS (or the newspapers) exactly what the law requires.  PERS decided to cave in because they were going to lose a PR war, having already spent $140,000 in legal fees to fight the order to release the information.  Although that amounts to about $1.20 per retiree, the Statesman Journal was already on their case over the money spent on outside counsel.  PERS was placed in a no-win situation in the public relations battle.
  • Finally, what started as a request for retirees making more than $100,000 per year in retirement, has now turned into a witch hunt for all retirees.  The retirees making more than $100,000 per year could be predicted quite easily.  There are probably 500-600 public employees in positions that pay salaries higher than this.  Most of them who have been career employees probably receive retirement benefits over the 6 figure amount.  Big deal.  The way PERS was set up, this was inevitable and I'd be shocked to find that there are more than 70 or 80 retirees earning more than $100,000 per year who weren't making that amount in their working days.  They receive those pensions because they took considerable risk with their PERS portfolios during their working days and happened to benefit from the OIC's fantastic investment success.  They could have lost most of their pension as well, but they didn't.
  • Finally, the concern for public employees, especially those elderly members who get victimized by family, investment counselors, and other not nice people, is especially insensitive.  Retired members are generally pretty conservative with their money.  They don't advertise their benefits because older people generally don't do this.  It has nothing to do with their status as retired public employees.  I don't want people bugging me about my benefits and how I earned them or getting advice about how I can double my money in 30 days or less.  Moreover, the older we are, the more susceptible we are to financial fraud.  I fear for my older colleagues who do not have the energy, wherewithal, or endurance to withstand the kind of potential financial abuse to which they will assuredly be subjected.  My financial business is between my banker, my broker, my wife, and me.  No one else needs to know.  I will reveal this much.  I retired in 2002 and received about 90% of my final average salary.  When I started receiving Social Security, my total benefit exceeds 6 figures.  I never earned 6 figures in my career and I still don't except if you include Social Security.  Including Social Security, my total benefit is about 105% of my final average salary.

I truly do not know what the public expects to learn from a data dump of the retirement benefits of roughly 110,000 individuals.   They are going to learn that there are a small number, probably less than 4% of the total, who receive significantly large benefits and their stories will vary all over the map.  As far as I'm concerned, if any news media calls you and asks you to comment on your benefits and how they were earned, answer with a firm "NO COMMENT". Do NOT assist the media in any way to figure out how your benefits were earned.  They started this fight, but we don't have to help them with their own job.  Without information from you, all they can do is guess how you got to your benefit level.  I would tell them nothing.  In the meantime, if you suffer any form of financial harassment AFTER this information is published, by all means seek legal counsel.  You have a legal right not to be abused, and the newspapers might as well be forewarned that you reap what you sow.

Right now I feel like I am waiting in the garden of gethsemane praying for tomorrow not to come.



Saturday, September 10, 2011

Scream, Aim, Fire

This probably describes the way many PERS retirees feel today after learning that PERS caved in on the various public record requests to release a fair amount of information to the media about current retirees.  While PERS got some concessions of what would be released and won a reprieve to allow notification of retirees about what information will be released, we basically got sold down the river.

This coming November, the local media (Whoregonian, Stateless Journal, Eugene Register Hard) will be getting a list of all current retirees along with their current retirement benefit amount.  What the media does with this information is anyone's guess, but it is hard to imagine anything useful coming from it.  I expect to be harassed unmercifully by those people who think public employees are worth "shit" and all are overpaid at work and in retirement.  I'm not looking forward to this information being released.  On the other hand, perhaps all of those idiots out there who are convinced we are bringing home at least 6 figures will be shocked to discover that few of our fellow retirees actually get 6 figures and, moreover, those that do could have been predicted by my pet roach.

Things get uglier next March (2012) when PERS will be compelled to release year of retirement, final average salary, agency, and job classification at retirement.  PERS has been able to limit the damage to this information and will not have to compile all of the other information requested, and this information alone will not be enough to generate identify theft ---- at least that's what everyone thinks.  The reality is that there is enough information that will be released that any intelligent identity thief could put together a credible dossier of information and financially rape almost any of us.  The good news /sarcasm on/ is that PERS will notify us before they release this information /sarcasm off/.  I'm so relieved that I can prepare to be screwed just knowing it is going to happen.  Perhaps it will be time to file a name change with the courts.  Maybe I'll call myself Prince.

For what it is worth, the PERS Coalition is examining the settlement to see whether there is any way to seek an injunction or file litigation to stop the release of any of this information.  I personally don't think there is any way to stop this crass invasion of privacy.  They are not releasing addresses, phone numbers, beneficiaries, social security numbers, employee ID numbers, or historical work data.  It doesn't look terribly likely that the Coalition will be able to do much about this, and I can't imagine the public employee unions spending the money to stop this.

All I can say is that you've been notified and warned.  The next time you see your name somewhere in print, it just might be in the Metro section of the Whoregonian.  Maybe Steve Duin will bake a column just for us.  Or maybe Elizabeth Hovde will write one of her classically snarky, unfriendly, and public-employee bashing columns about all of us piggies (and now she'll have names) slopping at the public trough.  The next sound you may hear from public employees may be the scream, followed by aim and fire.