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.