Pension plans, once inviolable promises to employees, are getting cut

JACKSONVILLE, Fla. — Tax revenue is up, home foreclosures are down, and, after a long absence, robust economic growth has returned to this sprawling city. But as far as municipal workers here are concerned, it feels as if the bad times never left.

Police and firefighters are on the verge of seeing their retirement benefits cut. Other city employees are certain to be next.

“The city is the one who put us in this position,” said Art Doring, who has been a city firefighter for 10 years. “When the market was great before the crash, they did not make payments into the pension. The chickens have come home to roost, and we are the ones who have to pay.”

The stock market has soared more than 75 percent in the past five years, yet many pension funds, where many middle-class workers should benefit from the market’s rise, continue to struggle, jeopardizing benefits for the workers who were counting on them in retirement.

At the end of last year, Congress passed legislation allowing certain distressed pension plans to slash retirement benefits, including those already being received by retirees — an unprecedented move altering a principle enshrined in federal law for four decades that said benefits already earned could not be cut.

None of the distressed plans have cut benefits — yet. But experts point out that their ability to do so is one more example that promises made to employees that once seemed inviolable can now be easily broken. This change in the social contract is growing more common as employers, private employers as well as governments, increasingly view the mushrooming cost of pensions as unbearable, even as the broader economy recovers.

Cutting the income of retirees could push some workers to lean more heavily on Social Security — which covers most, but not all, workers. Others may have to turn to younger family members to assist them, putting a squeeze on sons and daughters who in many cases are already struggling to save for their own retirements.

Cities including Chicago and San Jose have already moved to cut benefits for new or current employees as pension costs crowded out other priorities. Detroit was able to lift itself out of bankruptcy, in part by cutting pensions for retirees.

Other employees in the private sector are seeing their plans get frozen, meaning workers are accruing no new benefits, mainly because employers no longer want to shoulder the considerable financial burden of being responsible for workers’ retirements.

The creeping reductions in retirement benefits are adding a new layer to the financial stress being felt by many middle-class Americans who have been grappling with flat wages for more than a decade.

“There is an assault on retirees’ pensions, which is an assault on the middle class,” said Karen Friedman, executive vice president and policy director at the Pension Rights Center, which advocates for better retirement security policy. “With stagnant wages and increasing costs to American families, legislators should be doing everything possible to protect pensions that provide family stability. Yet this is just the opposite of what policymakers and employers are doing.”

With tax increases off the table politically here in Jacksonville, officials say they have no choice but to cut benefits. They have offered to do so in a way that will affect mainly new and future employees and not touch current retirees. But to many city workers, who have not had a general pay raise in nearly seven years, the looming pension cuts still feel like a betrayal.

“We were promised what we were promised. Now they want to change that,” said Tim Nguyen, a city firefighter for 12 years.

The push to reduce retirement benefits is coming despite not just a long run of robust stock market returns but also a real estate rebound that is projected to fuel strong city revenue growth in the coming years.

But the growth has not been sufficient to restore pension funds ravaged by past market downturns, unrealistic financial projections, a spike in the number of retirees and benefit increases made during better times. Now the fund that pays out retirement benefits for police officers and firefighters has less than half the assets it needs to support future pensions and faces a $1.6 billion deficit. A separate fund that supports retirement benefits for other city workers also has a shortfall.

Similar deficits are plaguing private retirement plans, including some 200 multi-employer plans covering 1.5 million people who are struggling to stay afloat amid weak finances and a growing imbalance between retirees and active workers.

One particularly troubled multi-employer pension plan, the Teamsters’ Central States fund, pays truckers pensions of upward of $3,000 a month for the rest of their lives after 30 years on the road. But years of investment losses and a downturn in unionized drivers have left the fund in bad financial shape and the retirement benefits of 400,000 participants in danger of being cut.

In Jacksonville, the expanding deficits have forced the city’s annual contribution to the police and fire pension fund to grow more than 15-fold, to $153 million, since 2003. It is an unsustainable expense that now consumes more than 15 percent of the city’s general fund, crowding out vital investments such as road repairs, libraries and recreation centers.

“This is the issue for Jacksonville in the 21st century,” Mayor Alvin Brown (D) said flatly as he sat on a sofa in his spacious City Hall office. “It has a major fiscal impact, and that affects the city’s quality of life.”

The push to cut pensions marks a sharp change for a fast-growing city that just over a decade ago was so flush with money that officials were enhancing benefits and cutting property taxes at the same time.

The city added a guaranteed 3 percent yearly cost-of-living increase that compounded annually, even when inflation was lower. That was just the icing on a very appealing retirement package that allows police officers and firefighters here to retire after 20 years of service with 60 percent of their pay. Workers can top that off by entering a deferred-retirement program that allows them to continue working and be paid for as long as five years while their retirement benefits accrue in an account earning interest at 8.4 percent a year.

“There was a time when a large proportion of retired firefighters and police officers were struggling,” said Matt F. Carlucci, a former City Council member. “Because things look so good, a lot of benefits were added. I was part of that, and I make no apologies for it.”

In all, the city’s 1,700 retired public safety workers receive average annual benefits of nearly $56,000, not much less than the $60,000 average pay of the city’s 2,200 active officers and firefighters.

Police and fire union officials say the pensions match the risks and physically demanding nature of their jobs. Also, they point out, city firefighters and police officers do not receive Social Security, and they contribute 7 percent of their incomes to their retirement plans.

“When you tell Joe Citizen you don’t get Social Security, they say, ‘What?’ ” said Larry Osborne, a Jacksonville retiree who is now a vice president of the International Association of Fire Fighters. “But at the same time, many of them say, ‘I don’t get this kind of pension. You shouldn’t get this either.’ ”

Jacksonville officials could approve pension changes within weeks after years of false starts. “Most of my constituents feel that this is a very favorable plan and one that is not available to them in the private market,” said city council member Greg Anderson, who served on a city pension reform task force.

The proposals they are considering would increase the amount employees contribute to their pensions, reduce cost-of-living increases, and limit the benefits that workers can derive from the deferred-retirement program. Future employees would have to work 30 years to be eligible for a pension, and their benefits would accrue at a much slower rate. As part of the deal, the city would cut a financial deal with the municipally owned power company that would allow it to expedite payments on the unfunded pension liability.

As they gathered for a recent breakfast meeting in a brightly lit union hall not far from an elevated section of Interstate 95, firefighters sounded bitter about the proposed cuts. On one hand, they understood the city’s financial predicament. But at the same time, they did not think that the solution should come out of their pockets.

“It’s scary. It sucks to think my pension could tank,” said Shayne Johnson, who left a fire department in a neighboring county to take a job in Jacksonville nine months ago. “I am starting to wonder if I made the right decision by coming here.”

Robin Gainey, a 26-year veteran of the fire department, said workers should not have to make up for the miscalculations of the people who run the city.

“For years and years, there was no unfunded liability. Now, there is an unfunded liability, and nobody working in public safety had anything to do with that,” he said. “Still, it becomes our problem.”

Michael A. Fletcher is a national economics correspondent, writing about unemployment, state and municipal debt, the evolving job market and the auto industry.

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