Yesterday marked the final business day of 2011. Ever since 2000, PERS retirees and future retirees have been watching and waiting for the courts to unravel, untangle, and to clarify a variety of situations that threatened the hard-earned pensions of public employees in Oregon. Starting with the City of Eugene case, filed in early April of 2000 up until December 30, 2011 - nearly 11 full years - retirees have lived in a state of perpetual anxiety that some component of their pensions would disappear either before they had a chance to retire, or even afterwards. The final gavel on all the litigation surrounding the City of Eugene case, the Legislative reforms of 2003, the "infamous" settlement agreement between the City of Eugene plaintiffs and PERS, and PERS' hamfisted attempt to collect "overpayments" from those members who retired between April 2000 and April 2004 ("window retirees") came down yesterday. The Oregon Supreme Court rejected the review of its own verdict in the "Robinson" case -upholding its own verdict - and it closed the door on all but a small piece of "White" case - that which charged PERS with a breach of its fiduciary responsibility in signing the settlement agreement. The string has run out; the collection efforts for the remaining "overpayments" from the 1999 "over credit" will be permitted to go forth, and by Spring of 2012, "window retirees" will either need to write PERS a check to clear their accounts, or begin to see their monthly benefit reduced by some small, but unknown, amount in perpetuity. I haven't decided what I am going to do. It grates me no end to have to see my benefit reduced for my life and the life of my beneficiary; on the other hand, I'm in no mood to hand over a large sum of money to a bunch of people who simply don't deserve the money. I did nothing wrong and I submit there was no error in my benefits regardless of what politics and the courts have said.
The only heartening thing about the Supreme Court's ruling in the White case is that the court remanded back to Judge Kantor the matter of PERS' transfer of $61 million from the contingency reserve into the accounts of the 8 employers responsible for the City of Eugene case. The Supreme Court ruled that this was not a condition of the settlement agreement and that the amount bore no relationship to the amount the employers may have been overcharged as a result of retirements that occurred from the 8 employers during the period in question. The Supremes ordered that the amount be actually computed, not just estimated, and this will likely result in higher employer rates for the employers who benefited from this arbitrary transfer of money. This means that, hopefully, the City of Eugene plaintiffs will finally get hoist on their own petards in all of this. While it was a small victory for members - one that won't make any difference to any individual - it at least punishes PERS and the City of Eugene plaintiffs for what appears to me to be a form of collusion. Too bad there isn't any worse punishment. But, I'll take a victory in any form at this point.
The last decade's worth of litigation has been extremely costly to all parties and PERS has played both sides of the street for too long now. The time has come for this gamesmanship to cease and desist. PERS must decide NOW whether it is a trust for the benefit of its members, or a slush fund that benefits employers. We may all be stakeholders in the system, but the legislative mandate for PERS is clear. It exists solely and exclusively for the benefit of members of the system. The moment it ceases to exist for that purpose alone, it makes a mockery of trust law, and makes the notion of a fiduciary responsibility to the members a joke. Finally, it is absolutely clear that PERS has become so heavily influenced by politics that it is impossible to get any sort of a fair hearing in Oregon.
From the very beginning of the decade, starting with the City of Eugene case, it has been clear that politics and economics would take priority over statutory duties. The courts have been influenced by the ravings of the media, the media has pounced on any small or large PERS story with the gusto of a ravenous coyote. And the citizens of Oregon, who have eaten up the mainstream media's reports like the starving in Ethiopia, have no interest in the truth of how PERS came into being, what its functions are, and who it is supposed to serve. The public has swilled up the big lie that "…all money in PERS belongs to them, the taxpayers" and not to the people who actually earned and saved that money. I hope that the 2012 Legislature will put an end to this bloodlust by passing a bill that declares retiree personal information, including benefits, is completely off limits. There is no compelling need to know much of anything except the amounts of benefits, not the specifics of who gets them.
This is my last post for 2011. While I wish I could have ended the year with cheerier news, I guess the "good" news is that 11 years of litigation have finally come to an end. Now, let's hope the Legislature has the good sense to leave the PERS system alone for awhile and let it recover from these debacles.
I wish for all to have a safe, happy, and prosperous New Years. I say that without irony. I hope that the financial markets stabilize and people can get back to enjoying their retirements. Some of us have wasted nearly 11 years hoping to get some closure on the crap of the past decade. At last we have it; it is time to enjoy what time we have left.