Duluth News Tribune | Duluth, St. Louis County retirees see six-figure pensions

Findings from TUA’s pension project on Duluth, Minnesota are featured in this article from the Duluth News Tribune.

A Chicago-based watchdog group that trains its critical eye on public employee pensions has turned its scrutiny to Duluth and St. Louis County.

The group’s figures, confirmed by the Public Employees Retirement Association of Minnesota, show that 17 retired city or county workers receive pensions of more than $100,000 a year.

At the top of the county list was Robert Zeleznikar, a retired director of social services, who receives $160,051 a year in pension payments after 40 years of employment.

While the Taxpayers United of America uses the numbers as an argument to replace defined-benefit pensions with defined-contribution accounts like 401(k)s, PERA and union officials said the amounts cited by the watchdog group are far higher than most public workers’ pensions.

“Many government retirees make more in pension payments than private-sector taxpayers make in salaries,” said Christina Tobin, vice president of Taxpayers United of America, questioning whether those levels of retirement pay are sustainable.

“We’re shedding light on pension spending and the need for real reform,” Tobin said.

But state PERA executive director Mary Vanek said that, by focusing only on the highest-paid public pension recipients, Taxpayers United doesn’t present a complete, representative picture.

“They’ve picked a demographic that clearly skews the facts,” Vanek said. “The important thing to realize is that less than one-quarter of 1 percent of PERA participants get more than $100,000 per year.”

In the fiscal year that ended June 30, 2011, PERA paid a little more than $100.4 million to 5,004 retirees, said Susan Barbieri, communications officer for Retirement Systems of Minnesota. That translates to an average annual pension of $20,700.

Taxpayers United of America compiled a list showing the top 25 government pensions received by Duluth and St. Louis County retirees. Topping the city list was Janet Schroeder, who retired from her job as the director of Duluth’s libraries 20 years ago.

“It sounds a little high,” Schroeder said of numbers showing her monthly pension at $9,491 — or $113,896 a year.

Tobin vouched for the accuracy of the report, saying: “These are the numbers we received from the state. It’s funny that even the people in the system are sometimes surprised by them.”

Vanek of PERA confirmed that the information about monthly payments came from her organization, as it is a matter of public record.

Schroeder said she made much less at the library than directors in similar posts across the country and less than other men who worked for the city.

“I have no idea why they would have me higher on the list,” she said.

Schroeder noted that individual workers aren’t in the driver’s seat when it comes to determining pension pay. “We have no say, really, on what the pensions are,” she said.

As for being labeled a “pension millionaire” by Taxpayers United, Schroeder was dubious.

“Who knows?” she said. “So what?”

Ben Boo, former Duluth mayor, St. Louis County purchasing agent and state legislator, said he hasn’t paid attention to his pension since retiring 20 years ago, saying PERA does all the figuring for him.

The numbers attributed to him — $8,449 a month or $101,393 a year — seem high, he said. As for pension reform, he said, “Those were the rules that were in place.”

Boo said his salary as mayor was $48,000, and his top salary as a legislator was $20,000.

Zeleznikar, who retired in 1992 from St. Louis County at the age of 64, declined comment about his position at the top of the list when contacted by the News Tribune last week.

Though the Duluth and St. Louis County pension payments may sound generous, Tobin said local pension figures are very much in keeping with what her organization has found in other communities, as well.

“It’s an eye-opening experience when you see the names and amounts being paid in your community,” said Rae Ann McNeilly, director of outreach for Taxpayers United. “You begin to understand this system was created by power players who use the rank and file to secure their positions of power.”

Pension gap expected to narrow

For a variety of reasons, public pensions as far above the average as the local Top 50 are expected to be increasingly rare.

During the stock market’s go-go years, when investments were performing well, PERA provided far more generous annual increases in its payments to retirees. Vanek said many of the people on the Taxpayer United list have been drawing benefits for 20-plus years and received nice bumps in payments between 1992 and 2003 to reflect the fund’s handsome investment gains at that time.

Those kinds of benefit increases are not expected to return in the foreseeable future. PERA now makes only a 1 percent upward adjustment each year.

In addition, unions have willingly made recent concessions in pension compensation to keep the system solvent, according to Alan Netland, president of the Northeast Area Labor Council.

Solvency — or the assurance that 100 percent of potential pension payouts have money behind them — is mandated by state law by 2031. PERA is on track to reach that goal, Vanek said.

At present, PERA is only 76 percent adequately funded to meet its future commitments. The system would need another $4.4 billion to become fully funded.

“Minnesota is not the worst out there, by far. But there is an issue,” said David Montgomery, chief administrative officer for the city of Duluth, reflecting on PERA. “It’s not an imminent, crisis-tomorrow issue, but if you let it go, the less time you have to make up any shortfall. And time is your best friend to make the impact of any change more moderate.”

Vanek noted that all 48 local individuals who made Taxpayers United’s lists — two people were on both lists, having worked for both the county and city — did not pay into Social Security but instead made larger contributions to their pension funds. They don’t receive Social Security benefits in retirement but reap higher pension payments.

Firefighters and police continue to be exempt from Social Security, but most city and county employees hired after 1968 now participate in Social Security.

Defined-benefit vs. defined-contribution

Taxpayer United’s McNeilly called on government leaders to move away from defined-benefit programs or run the risk of mounting liabilities and an eventual crisis.

“We need to change to a defined contribution or 401(k) system that pays people a fair wage and equips them to save for their own retirement and build their own security,” she said.

Public employees do make substantial contributions to their pension funds, said Barbieri of Retirement Systems of Minnesota. PERA participants funnel 6.25 percent of their total earnings into these funds, she said.

Law enforcement officers and firefighters contribute 9.6 percent of their gross pay to PERA, and local government chips in 14.4 percent of gross pay, according to Jim Gottschald, St. Louis County’s employee relations director.

In all, 13 percent of revenue used to fund PERA’s pension system during the last 20 years has come from employee contributions. Meanwhile, the taxpayer has picked up 14 percent of the tab. Investment earnings have accounted for 73 percent of the pie.

“There are a lot of pros and cons to a defined-benefit versus a defined-contribution system,” Montgomery said. “It comes down to: Who’s ultimately responsible, and where does the risk lie? With a defined benefit, the risk lies mostly with the employer. And with a defined contribution system, the risk lies mostly with the employees.”

Projections challenged

To make its case for reform, Taxpayers United of America made some startling projections about what the Top 25 pensions would cost over a retiree’s lifetime — projections criticized as based on flawed assumptions.

For example, it projected that Zeleznikar would probably collect more than $6.2 million in pension payments before he dies. But those projections were based on the assumption that workers would retire by age 56 and would have an average life expectancy of 85.

Zeleznikar’s case illustrates the problematic nature of the exercise. Now age 84, Zeleznikar retired about 20 years ago, working well past the age assumed by the group. Just one year shy of his presumed age of death, Zeleznikar has collected nowhere near the sum Taxpayers United projects he will receive.

“In Minnesota, the normal retirement age for public employees is now 66, and if you go earlier, there’s a substantial reduction in pay,” Barbieri said.

More than three-quarters of PERA members are now subject to the higher retirement age requirement, according to Vanek.

Looking at the records of the individuals who made Taxpayers United’s list, PERA calculated that the actual average lifetime payout would be 50 to 64 percent of what the organization projected. This forecast was based on payments already made, actuarial estimates of each individual’s lifespan and an annual increase in benefits of 1 percent, instead of the 2 percent cost of living adjustment Taxpayers United used.

Even if every individual projection does not hold, Tobin said, the size of the pension payments is still substantial and worrisome.

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