27 Investigates: Ohio public pension systems

YOUNGSTOWN, Ohio (WKBN) — Public pension systems in cities like Detroit and Chicago are in big financial trouble.

Bankruptcy in the Motor City means money for retirees isn’t legally protected. And the system in the Windy City is only 35 percent funded.

That got 27 First News anchor Erika Thomas asking if Youngstown and the neighboring cities could see the same problems.

In Ohio, things are run differently. There are five statewide systems that provide benefits to public employees, educators and emergency responders.

Take a look at where things stand now, which is the result of pension reform that went into effect just a year ago.

The Public Employees Retirement System is the most healthy at a funding rate of 81 percent. The rest fall below 70 percent, with the Police and Fire Pension Fund struggling at just 64.2 percent.

City, county and state leaders we spoke with agree change needed to happen. But that means employees’ expectations had to change as well.

“People that are here now with years to go in their career know that they will be working longer and that they will be paying more so it is a sacrifice by the employees,” said Jack Filak, AFSCME Ohio Council 8.

“And we’re sending out a clarion call, start to invest in other opportunities, start to look at 401k’s, start to prepare yourself for the future,” said State Rep. Bob Hagan, D-Youngstown.

Ohio’s five pension systems are all doing better since reform last year. Now we’re digging deeper into the Ohio Police and Fire Pension Fund.

The most recent numbers show it’s just 64.2 percent funded. It would take 47 years to pay off what it owes. The state requires 30 years or less.

That means the fund had to submit recommendations to meet the mandate. It just presented to the Ohio Retirement Study Council on Feb. 13, and the council will decide where to go from here. But some say that plan is unnecessary.

Chris Weaver is a 15-year veteran of the Youngstown Fire Department and secretary-legislative director for the International Association of Fire Fighters Local 312. The firefighters he represents are paying more into their pensions since new rules went into effect in July 2013.

“Increase of 2.25 percent additional over the next three years that’s going to be taken out of our pay so that’s going to be less bringing home, going in toward the pension fund,” Weaver said.

Youngstown Fire Chief John O’Neill understands how tough that can be on his guys. Rookie firefighters make just $24,000 a year and their lives could be at risk every time they answer a call for help.

“That’s real money. That’s money you buy bread with so I think that matters a lot,” O’Neill said.

Now things could be changing again. Through Thomas’ research, we found out the Police and Fire Pension Fund Board approved a new plan in December. By law, it must submit ideas to meet the state’s 30-year requirement.

But it comes just five months after a system overhaul.

“Let Senate Bill 340 work itself out. It’s supposed to take three to four years. It wasn’t made for an immediate impact,” Weaver said.

“To compound that then now before you even know what happens with the first round of changes, I think is premature,” O’Neill said.

The changes include increasing contribution rates, cutting cost of living adjustments and money for health care.

And equalizing employer contributions. Right now, employers pay in 19.5 percent for police officers and 24 percent for firefighters.

“Those are real taxpayer dollars there. That effect on the city could be a few hundred thousand dollars a year in additional pension contributions,” O’Neill said.

State Rep. Bob Hagan worked on the House subcommittee to reform Ohio’s pension systems. He agrees legislators should wait to take action.

“Look, I’m on the side of the police and fire on this. If people put in their time, we owe them a decent pension,” Hagan said. “We have to see how it fleshes out. We have to see how it works out.”

Even if the council and lawmakers follow that advice, all public employees are still adjusting to the 2012 reform. That means unions will fight for more money in the future.

“In order to make up for the changes and make up for their losses, we hope to secure some wage gains for them,” said Filak, AFSCME regional director.

“You’re going to look at mostly increased wages and stuff to offset those costs,” Weaver said.

That fight will be between employers and employees. But both sides say pension funds are solid and the public shouldn’t have to pay for any future changes.

“The public employee retirement systems here in Ohio are well-run and are sufficiently funded so that they’re not going to be coming back to taxpayers and asking for more,” Filak said.

Weaver plans to do some investing on the side to make up for a smaller paycheck and a smaller pension. But he said all the number-crunching won’t get in the way of saving lives.

“I don’t think there’s going to be an impact on services. I mean, we’re here to do a job and we’re going to still do our job as best as we can, no matter what,” Weaver said.

The Ohio Police and Fire Pension Fund Board won’t have to address the 30-year requirement again until 2016. By then, the fund hopes to meet it without any more changes.

The State Teachers Retirement System submitted a new plan to the council on Feb. 21. Right now, it would take more than 40 years to pay off what it owes.

To see a breakdown of all five Ohio public pension systems, including tri-county numbers, click here.

To see information on Ohio’s public pension systems provided by Mahoning County Auditor Mike Sciortino, click here.

For more information, contact Erika Thomas at erika.thomas@wkbn.com.

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