PERS, revealed

By Chris Collins September 26, 2011 07:27 pm

We’ve heard a lot of stories over the years about Oregon’s Public Employees Retirement System (PERS).

PERS provides pensions to most local, county, state and public school employees in Oregon.


 

Some of these tales are troubling, especially considering PERS’ rising cost — cities, counties and school districts will shell out an additional $1.1 billion in the two-year budget cycle that started July 1 to keep PERS on the right side of the ledger.

We know, for instance, that some public employees make more after retiring than before. In most if not every such case, the employee was hired before 1996, the year the Legislature eliminated some of the more generous aspects of PERS.

But because the available data are not complete, it has been difficult to distinguish between which PERS rumors are true and which are, if not apocryphal, then at least greatly embellished.

PERS officials, unfortunately, have added to the murkiness rather than tried to clarify matters. This not only enables conspiracy theorists, but it withholds from taxpayers (including PERS recipients) information they’re legally entitled to — specifically, where some of their money goes, and how and why it ended up there.

When The Oregonian and the (Salem) Statesman Journal newspapers asked PERS for detailed information about retirees’ benefits last year, PERS officials said no.

And when Oregon Attorney General John Kroger — who unlike his predecessor, Hardy Myers, seems to understand that his state has a law which entitles the public to peruse public records — sided with the newspapers, PERS, rather than concede, spent $140,000 in legal fees.

Fortunately, PERS lost.

(The unfortunate part being that the pension system wasted on lawyers money that should have gone to its members.)
As a result of a settlement between PERS and the newspapers announced earlier this month, in late November PERS will publicly disclose the monthly pension amount for each of its 110,000 retirees.

Then, in March 2012, PERS will release detailed information about each pension, including the retiree’s final salary, years of service, retirement data and the method used to calculate that person’s pension.

These records add valuable context to the PERS issue.

As it stands, the public knows little more than the total cost for PERS and that, as the system’s supporters inevitably say, the retirees are only getting what was promised them in contracts.

This is true. The state can’t take a penny from any PERS retiree. Nor, except in cases of fraud, should the state try.

But neither is this the point.

The public deserves to know — and, to reiterate, is legally entitled to know — how the PERS system works.

We deserve to know how it is that certain employees end up with a bigger check after they retire.

PERS officials’ arguments against disclosing detailed information are far from persuasive.

They contend, for instance, that although public employees’ salaries are public records, their pension benefits should not be.

This is nonsensical. Whether salary or pension, the money, with the exception of investment earnings added to the pension, comes from the same source: taxpayers.