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Local retirees react to PERS data release
By CHRIS COLLINS and JAYSON JACOBY
Bill Uttenreuther has read some of the recent headlines regarding PERS, but they don’t seem to have much in common with the pension checks that he and his wife, LaDonna, get each month.
The Baker City couple are both PERS members.
Bill worked 27 years as a city firefighter. He retired in 1998.
LaDonna put in 29 years with the Baker School District, retiring a few years ago.
Their final annual salaries — the figures on which their pension checks are based — added up to about $52,500.
Their combined PERS yearly benefit is $37,600.
That’s slightly less than 72 percent of their final combined salaries.
Quite different, Bill said, from the cases of PERS retirees who are earning more than their final salaries — more than three times as much, in rare instances.
“Not all of us are in that 100 percent boat,” Bill said with a chuckle. “I’m living comfortably, but I’m not getting rich.”
Exactly how generous PERS is has long been a topic of interest in Oregon.
The public’s ability to delve into the numbers grew exponentially last week.
PERS, under the terms of a settlement it reached last year in a lawsuit filed by The Oregonian and the Salem Statesman Journal, released details about 117,000 retirees.
The database includes retirees’ names, how long they worked for a public agency, their final salary and their PERS benefits.
(The searchable database is available at The Oregonian’s website, www.oregonlive.com.)
Uttenreuther said that although his and his wife’s pensions are modest by PERS standards, he’s well-satisfied with their share.
“It’s a good system, and I was lucky enough to get a job with the fire department,” he said.
Uttenreuther worked in the grocery business for several years in Illinois before moving to Baker City. He said he’s certain his pension would not have been as lucrative had he not switched careers.
He points out, though, that his pension checks would be bigger had he not taken money from his PERS account and invested it himself.
“I made a mistake there,” Uttenreuther said. “I’m sure I’m not the only one.”
The advantages of leaving money in the PERS system are pretty clear — especially for retirees hired before 1996, the so-called “Tier 1” group, who were eligible for a program that guaranteed a minimum 8 percent annual return.
One local example is Richard G. “Rick” Holden.
Holden, 62, who retired from his 35-year career with the Baker County Road Department three years ago, feels “very fortunate, to be quite honest,” as he draws in a yearly retirement amount worth more than he earned while he was still working.
Holden is among the Tier 1 retirees who chose the Money Match option.
That program doubles a member’s account balance upon retirement, then converts the total into an annuity based on the retiree’s life expectancy.
Holden receives an annual pension of $58,050, which is 118.5 percent of his final salary with the county of $48,967.44.
Holden said Tuesday that he is aware those numbers, and the figures for other PERS members, is now available to the public.
“I don’t think it needs to be on the Internet,” he said.
Holden said he began to realize what a nice pension he’d receive upon his retirement about 20 years into his employment with the county.
“Probably about the 20-year mark, I realized I couldn’t afford to walk out the door and leave that,” he said.
Other people he worked with over the years did just that and took their retirement money with them, he said, adding that every one of them who made that decision regrets it today.
Prior to joining the Road Department workforce, Holden spent a couple of years in college and then was drafted into the U.S. Army.
“It was the only lottery I ever won,” he said.
After a couple of years of military service, he sold cars for another couple of years.
For the next 35 years, a total of 414 months of service according to PERS records, he built his retirement nest egg.
“I put in 35 years to make that happen,” Holden said. “That’s one of the keys.”
His wife, Jennifer G. Holden, who retired from the state Department of Human Services, also took the Money Match option. She had 28ﬁ years in the system when she retired in 2009. She receives 88.3 percent of her final salary of $39,630.36 for an annual benefit of $34,999.
Police and fire employees are eligible for retirement at age 50 after 25 years of service.
Raymond A. Duman, 53, of Baker City retired in February 2011 after a career of about 29 years with the Oregon State Police.
Duman receives a pension that is 75.4 percent of his final salary of $98,460.84. His annual benefit is $74,285.
Duman understands that PERS retirement benefits are public record.
“But if I had my druthers, it wouldn’t be,” he said. “I don’t think it’s anybody’s business ... how much I’m making in retirement.”
He added that the numbers do not tell the entire story. For example, since retiring, he has had to purchase health insurance for his family at a cost of about $1,500 per month.
Duman is aware, however, that those who are not PERS members might have a problem with the payouts beneficiaries are receiving.
“A lot of people raise their eyebrows,” he said.
“The retirees did not make the system,” he said, adding that “the program probably does need to be tweaked for the benefit of everyone.”
“I never went into this thinking I’d be getting a good retirement,” he said.
PERS critics have proposed changes that would reduce retirees’ benefits — and thus the cost to cities, counties and school districts.
But those efforts failed in court because PERS was created legally, and the system is contractually obligated to pay the benefits promised to members.