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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.

 

 

16 comments:

peg said...

Marc, you’ve done a good job expressing what I want to say. In this mess I am angry over several points.

First PERS promise that, upon retirement, my benefit would become private. I feel betrayed, that they did not fight hard enough to protect my rights to financial privacy.

Next, I worked for 30+ years in a couple of state agencies where I *always* brought more in taxes/income than the sate paid me in salary and benefits. At my last job even the lowest producing employees brought in 10 times their salary and benefits in revenue that the state would not have gotten without our work. Top producing employees in this job often brought in 20 time their salaries and I was commonly in the top 3 or 4 producers.

Finally, I took the variable gamble. In the first 10 years of a 30 year career I diverted 75% of my PERS contribution into the variable. I stayed with it all the rest of my career, roughly 25 years. I was lucky, I had a number of more up years than down. And it hurt in those years when they took money out of my account. But that was the gamble I took. The best part is that, under the Lipscomb ruling, Oregon taxpayers do *not* have to match my winnings, that is, it doesn’t cost taxpayers any more and a regular account. At the same time it allowed me to do very well with a modest retirement. As a result, when I retired I originally got 135% of my final average salary. After a few years of retirement, with the 1999 take back and one really bad year in the variable (I stayed in after retirement) I actually get 150% of my FAE.

Many of my neighbors will not understand the risks that I took. I also suspect they will not understand that this didn’t cost more of their tax dollars. Many of them don’t even understand that I pay several thousand of dollars in Oregon taxes every year myself! A long night waiting in the cold and dark of the garden, praying that this challenge might be taken from me indeed! Well said Marc!

peg

mrfearless47 said...

From a reader without credentials to post here:

"What strange times we live in. Oregon's chief law enforcement officer (AG) orders the release of information that his predecessors deemed a dangerous invasion of privacy that would put retirees at risk for identity theft, harassment or… worse. Is it because he believes in the cause--or is it because he wants to be governor?

If disclosure and "transparency" were in fact the goals it could be accomplished by releasing all of the data without names attached. If the media, legislators, or any interested citizen wanted to see if there was evidence of discrepancies, errors or excessive or illegal compensation they would be able to do so and request a more in-depth audit of the accounts so identified-- and they could accomplish this (at least initially) without names being attached. If fraud was discovered the new media would have their blockbuster story for the front page.

But transparency is not the goal. The goal is to attempt to breathe life into flagging and failing newspapers with a form of tabloid sensationalism. The same media that goes to great lengths to protect the identity of rape victims, juvenile offenders and undercover cops have no problem publishing the name of the 80 year old PERS pensioner with mild memory issues--ripe for financial exploitation, identity theft or fraud. If they can incite someone to assault a $100,000+ PERS retiree…. they have another great headline.

This media (in an attempt to drive subscriptions and website visits, both of which enhance revenue) allow the most outrageous statements and distortions to be displayed on the commentary sections below the news stories without any attempt to clarify or correct these errors (or educate and inform… their mission?). The Register Guard even provides a "Pontius Pilate" stance at the top of their comment sections:

"The Register-Guard doesn't necessarily condone the comments here, nor does it review every post."

Really? No responsibility to monitor the areas they provide for people to spew misinformation and hatred?

Meanwhile, while absolving themselves of any responsibility there is an ever increasing number of comments that seek to dehumanize the PERS retirees; "bugs," "rats," "roaches," "worms," "parasites," "pigs." Any psychologist or student of history will tell you that this is a step toward violence. You are not committing an act of violence or vandalism against a human being…. but rather a "thing."

I am not frightened (as some of the newspaper commentators seem to desire) as I can take care of myself, but I am profoundly disappointed and sad that our Attorney General, our PERS Board, our "leading" newspapers apparently don't care about the IRREVERSIBLE damage they are about to inflict on some of their fellow citizens. People who went to work for the State of Oregon--most displaying dedication and enthusiasm in their jobs--who were REQUIRED to join the Public Employee's Retirement System as a stipulation of their employment and who accepted the retirement contract that was offered to them.

This is all so unnecessary. All of the required information would be accessible without names attached. That can only mean that there is another purpose for the release of this information."

Dad said...

I worked 30 years in public safety for a city, I never worked for the state nor for either city whose newspapers are pressing the issue. If I or my co-workers owed a financial explanation to anyone it would be to the 25 thousand residents of the City I worked for, not the Oregonian, Register Guard, Statesman Journal or any other dying breed medium.
Unfortunately my current neighbors may not understand the PERS system and that I had no choice of most of my retirement beyond when to go. It's sad that the people that have control over this info have left the retirees high and dry.

mpguy said...

Another thing many people won't understand is that it makes a difference how old you are when you start drawing benefits. Those who wait longer receive a greater amount per year, but over a shorter period of time. If you retire at 60 (as opposed to 57 or 58), to break even you have to live to at least 71.

I'm perfectly OK with people finding out what my monthly check is, even though it's fairly hefty. It's the potential violence, vandalism, and other harassment that concerns me. There are too many crazies out there who don't seem to have much ability to distinguish right from wrong. And, as you said, it's much easier when you're attacking a "thing."

The Register-Guard editorial writer claims that public employees deserve that kind of treatment because they're making more than those in the private sector. I didn't know that was a crime.

Nobody "deserves" violence or other forms of harassment. Especially people who gave up money during their careers so that they could help make society better.

John said...

While PERS retirees certainly have legitimate concerns with their security, it's the actives who will be punished (again). The red-meat faction of the legislature, and the newspapers will seize upon that fraction of retirees who are making more retired than they did working--and use it to "prove" that PERS is broken and must go. We (or PERS) can talk till we're blue in the face about why this is---to the public all this is irrelevant--facts are inconvenient things.

Unknown said...

I retired at 55 in 2007 and now wallow in about 65K a year,Money Match, PERS benefits. With deferred comp ( my money, of course) add in another 1500.00 per month for a total of 83K. In two years I will take social security and that brings the total, in two years, to 101K. Now if you factor in the rent revenue I get from my duplex that adds another 10K for a total of 111K. I am not averse to sharing this data with anyone. I always add the caveat that the PERS came from working a full 30 years, the deferred comp came from being somewhat frugal, the social security I paid into, and the rental income is just good investment savvy. I apologize for none of it...none.

John 2031 said...

I wonder how many PERS retirees were elected officials: city, county, state including legislators. Are any current legislators collecting PERS income? I was a county elected official for 16 years and retired after a total of 32 years working for two counties. None of my PERS money was in the variable account and my net income, not counting Social Security, is about what my final net income was while working. I don't like the idea of having my personal information made available publicly.

Andrew said...

Wow, I have to say that, even as a PERS retiree, the disclosures about how well my fellow retirees are faring elicits moments of resentment. I am a Ph.D. who put in 25 + years as faculty/scientist at a state university. I retired in 1992 and currently receive a pension in the mid $40's. I understand all the variables that give rise to some of you getting double that. Nonetheless, it strikes me as a bit perverse that there is this disparity, especially given how hard I know I worked and the contributions I made to the state and society. Now, if I put myself in the position of someone who doesn't have anything close to the level of retirement security I have, it's not hard for me to understand the vitriol against us.

In the end, I think that resentment is misplaced: there should be greater equality all-around, but that should involve improving the lot of the less well-off, not spitefully trying to bring PERS retirees down. But it's worth keeping in mind that much of the hostility does result from the hard times suffered by people who are as deserving of a secure future as we are.

boomergirl said...

Both my husband and I are PERS retirees. We are diligent about protecting ourselves from ID theft. By publishing our names and PERS information all our efforts have been undermined in one fell swoop through absolutely no fault of our own except for our choice to have careers in the field of education in the State of Oregon.

pgornick said...

I fail to see how release of names serves the public interest. Individuals receiving PERS pensions had no control over the lawmaking or board rate crediting decisions that had bearing on the eventual value of our benefit. I understand the public interest in the aggregate demographics and the amount of benefit vis-a-vis potential prospective plan changes, but releasing identities of the recipients does nothing to further that objective.

mrfearless47 said...

Another comment from a reader who doesn't have posting credentials:



"Being rather average (or maybe below average) working and retirement income-wise, I am not excessively upset with having my retirement income published. I do respect the rightful concerns of other retirees, probably more intelligent and realistic than myself. I further wholeheartedly support Marc's comments, and the intelligent rationale behind them.

Yes, it is strange to think of curious former co-workers (and co-workers from my post-retirement non-PERS job), plus relatives, friends and neighbors - not to mention complete strangers - looking up my personal retirement financial information. Maybe my ex-wife and former girlfriends might check my finances out to see if their rejection of me for emotional and social reasons was equally justified for financial reasons. But throw the information out for everyone, even though I am under the impression that the I.R.S. and Social Security will only hand out my information if they have a valid and personally justified court order for my personal information, not some bogus blanket request.

I do feel that PERS honchos, policy makers and legal counsel really dropped the ball. While I do believe in disclosure; potentially setting people up for harassment borders on the criminal. If PERS foresaw eventual disclosure, I feel they should have negotiated releasing raw data identified by first initial and first two letters of the last name. (contents edited for brevity)

One annoying aspect of reality is that while figures don't lie, liars sure can figure. If I had an identical twin brother hired at exactly the same time, working the same overtime, promoted the same day - our retirement income figures could be drastically different. He may have gone 100% variable income investment, while I, risk-adversive, stuck with fixed. Maybe he get substancially more, and looks like he gamed the system, whereas in reality, took more chances and just happened to be rewarded for such. Should he elict more hate than I?
Or let's also say that he is single, or his spouse has her own adequate personal retirement income. So he took full retirement benefits while I co-insured my spouse in the event of my demise. Again, he gets more per month; should that be held against him? By strict raw data it will be, and yet the only valid explanation is the release of additional personal data that is strictly a personal and family matter. We know what is going to happen. The haters will look at his numbers, assume that I am receiving the same, and further assume that my spouse will get the same when I die.

edited again
I'm not trying to create hate against the truly needy, and I'm not qualified to determine who are the truly needy. I'm just pointing out that they apparently have more rights than retired workers do. We all are interconnected. I don't picket fast-food markets, banks, gas stations, grocery/furniture/clothing stores and the like because they are paying their employees wages and maybe benefits, which raises my costs! There is no rational reason for infighting. I believe in disclosure, to curtail abuses and excesses. But I didn't create the retirement system, affect or influence the system, milk or manipulate the system. I'm thinking that John Q. Public, privately or publicly employed (or retired), ought to direct the majority of their resentment towards the rich who adamantly insist that a sunset or end of temporary tax breaks are an unfair tax increase on the rich. Give them a tempory inch and they want to retain a mile forever. But, give them credit. They have been very successful in deflecting hate from themselves towards those that they haven't been able to drive into abject poverty - yet!"

kuhnsmith said...

I am extremely unhappy with the decision by the PERS board to capitulate and allow the press to publish what is very personal information. In particular, he use of our names is completely uncalled for. Data is data, our names is very personal and should be irrelevant to serious, professional journalists. Unfortunately, we're dealing with muckrakers here.

The true villain in this sordid little drams is AG Kroger. He's fumbled this whole thing big time. He had the chance to take the high road and deny the open records requests from the two papers, but in that I strongly suspect his primary motivation is to increase his future chances at higher office rather than in making prudent decisions in his current office, he decided to pander to the media. After all, their endorsement is important to him.

In this case, the highest road for Kroger to take would have been to say that while he's all for transparency in government, there are so many instances of individuals and corporations receiving public funds that it would be improper to single out one relatively small group of retired public employees to expose to public ridicule. He could have responded to the papers that he would be happy to receive a request from them to release the names of everyone who receives ANY form of public funds, including social security, public assistance, veterans, etc. benefits. He could have also encouraged a request to release the individual names and income that private sector individuals and companies receive from public funding sources. After all, transparency is transparency. The private sector can't expect to hide behind the vail of privacy any more than the public sector can. Truthfully, I'm much more interested and concerned about how my tax money is being handed over to private entities than I am about anyone on a public payroll let alone retirees.

So, AG Kroger is the principle villain in all of this, and though I voted for him last time around, I will do everything in my power to defeat him when he runs for his current or higher office in the future!

tdrex said...

Marc, you did a very good job of summarizing concerns that I share with you regarding the recent decision by PERS to go public with retiree names and other personal financial information.

It seems blatantly irresponsible of both our Attorney General and the PERS agency to name names in this fashion. Unfortunately, it is about what I would have expected from the newspapers we have today.

The vast majority of PERS retirees I know dedicated their lives to serving the public. These are hardworking everyday people,that over the past 50 or 60 years, have educated our children, ensured our public saftey, built and maintained our streets and highways, searched for us when we were lost, saved us when we needed to be pried from our wrecked cars. They ran our criminal justice systems, and have taken care of our stray pets, parks, landfills, etc. These people deserve much better than to be made targets and martyrs in such thoughtless and thankless fashion.

Hopefully there will be some fair method of recourse for those retirees that will undoubtedly suffer personal, or financial harm as a result of this irresponsible action.

Unknown said...

I agree that all this is going to do is create more hate towards state workers and retirees.
I also agree that this info will be used to fuel the fire for future retiree cuts, most likely in the next full legislative session in 2013. Also I believe it will be used to ‘try’ to ding current retiree’s, although that may be a tougher goal.
It is really a sad day when Oregon allows personal information to be printed, and allow a public data base for anyone and everyone to look up whenever they feel like it. Fraud, safety issues, privacy; all of these are of concern. What are they thinking?
I am also concerned that the papers will only print the larger retirements and not print the retirements of the majority of retiree’s making much less, some only a few hundred per month. They always twist it to make the public think we all make the ‘big bucks’.
I will never buy another paper, and Kroger has lost my vote!

Unknown said...

I agree that all this is going to do is create more hate towards state workers and retirees.
I also agree that this info will be used to fuel the fire for future retiree cuts, most likely in the next full legislative session in 2013. Also I believe it will be used to ‘try’ to ding current retiree’s, although that may be a tougher goal.
It is really a sad day when Oregon allows personal information to be printed, and allow a public data base for anyone and everyone to look up whenever they feel like it. Fraud, safety issues, privacy; all of these are of concern. What are they thinking?
I am also concerned that the papers will only print the larger retirements and not print the retirements of the majority of retiree’s making much less, some only a few hundred per month. They always twist it to make the public think we all make the ‘big bucks’.
I will never buy another paper, and Kroger has lost my vote!

Unknown said...

I agree that all this is going to do is create more hate towards state workers and retirees.
I also agree that this info will be used to fuel the fire for future retiree cuts, most likely in the next full legislative session in 2013. Also I believe it will be used to ‘try’ to ding current retiree’s, although that may be a tougher goal.
It is really a sad day when Oregon allows personal information to be printed, and allow a public data base for anyone and everyone to look up whenever they feel like it. Fraud, safety issues, privacy; all of these are of concern. What are they thinking?
I am also concerned that the papers will only print the larger retirements and not print the retirements of the majority of retiree’s making much less, some only a few hundred per month. They always twist it to make the public think we all make the ‘big bucks’.
I will never buy another paper, and Kroger has lost my vote!