post-gazette.com | Visiting group decries high public pensions

Findings from TUA’s pension project on Pittsburgh and Allegheny County are featured in this article at post-gazette.com. UPDATE: An update to the original release that this article is based on has been made here.

A Chicago advocacy group stopped in Pittsburgh on Monday to promote its campaign for scaled-back government pensions, but retirees and others said there’s more to pension figures than meets the eye.

Representatives of Taxpayers United of America are on a multistate tour to demand an end to defined benefit plans for government employees. During the first of four stops in Pennsylvania, the group provided the names and pension amounts for 85 city and Allegheny County retirees, saying the numbers show that government pensions are overly generous, straining municipal coffers and out of step with private-sector benefits.

“The math just doesn’t work for defined benefit systems,” Rae Ann McNeilly, the group’s director of outreach said. Many municipalities have contributed to unfunded liabilities with unreasonable earnings forecasts for retirement fund portfolios, she said.

Pension woes have afflicted Pittsburgh, which narrowly avoided a state takeover of its underfunded pension last year. The state pension funds for teachers and commonwealth employees also are seriously underfunded.

Taxpayers United calls itself a nonpartisan nonprofit. Christina Tobin, the group’s vice president, said it has a political action committee that’s made contributions to a handful of candidates.

The group said it obtained pension data by making Right-to-Know requests of city and county pension funds. It provided lists of 85 city and county retirees with annual pensions ranging from about $37,000 to about $180,000.

But officials said at least two of the figures — including the $180,000 attributed to retired city parking supervisor Charles Dayieb — were inaccurate.

“I don’t know where they got that one,” Mr. Dayieb, who officially retired 11 years ago but works two days a week as a store clerk, said with a laugh. Jim South, an attorney for the city’s municipal pension office, said Mr. Dayieb’s annual pension is about $27,000 a year; Mr. Dayieb put it closer to $20,000.

The 25 city police retirees with the biggest pensions receive from about $37,000 to about $52,000 annually, while their 25 counterparts from the fire department receive about $52,000 to about $72,000, the group said.

Joshua Bloom, attorney for the firefighters union, said the numbers lack context. Firefighters receive no Social Security, he said, while some worked extraordinary amounts of overtime.

In addition to naming retirees and their pensions, Taxpayers United estimated a “lifetime pension payout” for each. For the 25 city firefighters, the lifetime estimates ranged from about $1.6 million to about $2.1 million over 30 years.

Mr. Bloom said the estimates were offensive, partly because firefighters have a lower life expectancy than other demographic groups.

According to city data, former city solicitor George Specter is the non-public safety retiree with the biggest pension — about $52,000 a year.

He also draws a salary of about $115,000 as general counsel for the city’s Urban Redevelopment Authority.

Mr. Specter couldn’t be reached for comment. The agency’s executive director, Rob Stephany, said the city pension reflects Mr. Specter’s long career with the city.

Mr. Stephany said government agencies have a tough time attracting and retaining engineers, lawyers and other professionals. While their expertise is needed to protect the public’s interest, he said, they command higher salaries in the private sector.

With an annual pension of about $77,000, retired corrections officer Russell Strathen ranked fourth on the group’s list of highest-paid county retirees.

Mr. Strathen, who confirmed the amount of his pension, said he worked a lot of overtime that enabled him to “make a lot of money” and build his pension. If he hadn’t agreed to work those shifts, he said, other officers could have been forced to work overtime even if they would have rather been home with their families.

“You cannot leave inmates unattended,” Mr. Strathen said.

Mr. Strathen retired about two years ago after about 23 years on the job. He said the county could hire more officers if it doesn’t want to pay overtime to the current complement.

“I understand the public anger over it,” he said of public pensions. “You know, it’s a benefit I obviously took advantage of. It was there.”

The group wants to halt defined benefit plans for new government hires and put new workers on 401(k) plans. It also wants current government employees to begin contributing more of their salaries toward their pensions.

On Wednesday, the group will be in Harrisburg to press its demand for new pension laws and to highlight the pensions of state legislators. “There are some hefty ones there,” Ms. McNeilly said.

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