Pensions and Tensions

[Originally published on Medium]
Scene from Frontline’s “The Pension Gamble” episode (via pbs.org)

A couple weeks ago, Frontline, the consistently excellent PBS documentary series, once again did what they do best: taking a really unsexy, wonky topic and showing you how it’s vitally important to every single one of us.

This time, the topic was something that is top of mind for all of us at Milwaukee County: pensions.

Around half of all states haven’t saved nearly enough money to pay for the benefits they’ve promised to government workers. The Pension Gamble investigates the forces and choices that have driven America’s public pensions into this multi-trillion-dollar hole[.]

Even in the brief summary that’s available online, the two major factors at work in fixing public pensions are clear. The episode focuses on Kentucky, where State Rep. Jerry Miller was one of the leaders who brought a last-minute pension bill to a vote in order to meet their deadline to pass a budget. Miller said this of the maneuver to bring the bill to a vote:

It was an unpleasant task I was asked to do. No one wants to make other people unhappy, but you have to consider all of the factors. We couldn’t pass a budget if we didn’t have a pension bill[.]

On the other hand, Kentucky public school teacher Christina Frederick-Trosper said this:

I have no savings. So, my pension is everything. Without that, I won’t survive.

It’s been 16 years since the Milwaukee County pension scandal broke, and the fallout has included huge financial obligations for the County (and ultimately the taxpayers), as well as increased distrust in local government.

At the same time, current and future retirees have relied on the promises made to them — and they rightfully expect those promises to be kept.

The simplest read on this issue is that the interests of the County and our financial obligations are in tension with the interests of current and future retirees who rely on the benefits promised to them.

But in order to solve this problem, we have to take it beyond that basic dilemma.

Enter the Retirement Sustainability Taskforce (RST), a group I created last year to explore how we can take something that looks like a zero-sum game and turn it into a system that serves everyone’s needs.

I want to talk a little bit about what we mean when we say “sustainability.” Sometimes that word can be taken to mean self-preservation, or maintaining the status quo. That’s not actually what we’re talking about here.

What we’re talking about is that, in 20 years, Milwaukee County’s obligations for pensions and health care will be higher than what we’d collect in property taxes.

What we’re talking about is making sure that no County employee ever gets a letter when they retire that says, “You remember how we promised you retirement benefits? Sorry, we actually don’t have the money for your pension anymore.”

What we’re talking about is making sure that no current County employee who’s making $15/hour is will take home $1.50 less per hour to fund somebody else’s pension.

What we’re talking about is securing dignity and quality of life for County employees in their retirement, without telling taxpayers that’s the only thing we can afford to do with their tax dollars.

It’s easy to sling around pointed fingers and self-righteous blame in a situation like this, to say that the decisions made by County leaders in the past are the reason we’re in this mess.

Part of why I bring up the Frontline episode is because it’s clear that this was never an issue unique to Milwaukee County. It’s a nationwide epidemic, and whatever the reason, a lot of other leaders across the country made decisions that have yielded similar results to what we have in Milwaukee County.

What’s more important to me is not how we got here, it’s how we’re going to solve this.

The RST held its final meeting this week. We voted on final recommendations for how we can meet all the goals I listed above, without putting all the burden of solving this problem on any one group — whether that’s current employees, current retirees or other taxpayers.

Like I said before, their recommendations aren’t about a zero-sum game — it’s not a matter of trading one person’s burden for another. In the last decade or so, the contributions from taxpayers and from current County employees has increased about 300 percent, and our pension system is still underfunded by $500 million.

This is a burden that we all have to bear together.

I’ve been told in the past — and expect to be told more in the future — that I can’t understand this issue because I personally may never have to rely on a public pension.

Following that logic, our District Attorney can’t prosecute people because he’s never been convicted of a crime, our Sheriff can’t run the jail because he’s never resided in one and our Department on Aging director can’t administer services because she’s not a senior citizen.

Experience is not required for empathy. And for me, protecting the quality of life for current and future County retirees is an enormous obligation that I think about every day.

Even if you’re not inclined to believe that, then know this: None of the decisions we’ve made or will make are my decisions alone. The recommendations that the RST adopted come after a year of discussions from a couple dozen stakeholders, representing everyone who has a direct interest in preserving the integrity of our pension system, plus a few highly qualified policy experts.

We’ll then take these recommendations to the County Board, who will work with us to find the fairest and most feasible ways to implement these recommendations.

We’ll have public sessions. We’ll have meetings of the mind. We’ll respond to all kinds of letters and phone calls. Heck, most likely I’ll be personally disparaged by a few dozen people along the way. But it comes with the territory, and if we’re going to make sure that all our current and future retirees have promises kept and retire with dignity, then it’s worth it.

I know how many futures depend on getting this right. We’re all in this together, and I’m confident we’ll all solve this together.

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