It has been said that life’s a gamble. When choosing careers, partners in love, places to call home, etc., there is no certainty that any of it will turn out the way one had hoped — people just go with their instincts, place their bets and then it is up to the individual on where life will lead to next.
One of the bigger gambles in life, however, is blatantly obvious and that’s hitting the jackpot financially. Pick a number, pick a commodity, diversify portfolios in the stock market, do what you will, but nothing is guaranteed — it’s all a gamble. When anyone places a literal bet, most people would have a backup in place, such as a regular, stable job in case they lose. So when it comes to public sector retirement funds, why do public sector organizations continue to promise guaranteed earnings based on the outcome of unsecured gambling? And why does the backup plan fall on the backs of taxpayers?
Over the weekend, a report came out showing that Ventura County Employees’ Retirement Association was still projecting its rate of return on investments at 7.75 percent though actuaries have recommended lowering projections to 7.5 percent. While a quarter of a percent doesn’t seem like much, it could be worth $224 million in unfunded liability, adding to the already $820 million that remains unfunded, according to Segal Consulting. It’s unnerving to think about how trustees and county officials will finagle this shortfall if the projections are correct — what services will be cut? How many jobs will remain vacant or will be cut? How much will fees and fines go up to account for the promises made on a gamble? County Financial Officer Paul Derse was quoted as saying that the county will have to start paying on this new unfunded liability beginning in the 2016-2017 fiscal year, if the actuaries’ predictions are right.
It seems that over the last decade or so, in response to any effort to discuss alternative retirement plans, specifically defined contribution plans such as 401(k)s, the public sector seems to react with any number of reasons why pensions (defined benefit plans) should continue to exist. Some say the public sector only hires well-educated people, justifying better earnings; others say private sector employees are just envious of secure retirement plans. Still, the main overarching one seems to be, whatever public agency it is, it must remain competitive to get the best of the best and somehow now, when decades ago it used to be public servants had decent pay but received great benefits, now they get both and somehow that’s for the good of the taxpayers. We can’t confirm or deny this but it seems akin to price gouging and all the public sector agencies are in on it and the taxpayers are helpless to change it. Given that public employee unions are some of the strongest in the nation — though with the recession they have had their fair share of pushback in the last few years— there may be some truth to this so-called gouging.
When it comes to discussing actual pay and benefits, according to a 2012 Princeton study, “Wages, Pensions, and Public-Private Sector Compensation Differentials,” federal employees come out between 26 percent and 51 percent higher in hourly earnings than comparable private sector employees. Further, when comparing similar employees in the private versus public sectors, the study concludes: “Once pension benefits are taken into account, employees at all levels of government generally receive higher compensation than private sector workers.” We can’t help but wonder why? How is this fair? And the real elephant in the room, how does this benefit taxpayers when they have to pay for it in the long run?
With so many facing retirement or already retired, we understand the value of secured retirement earnings. It’s also understood that people go into the public service for salaries and benefits, but unless there are jobs for all, then the public sector should more closely resemble private sector earnings. It’s time for a sustainable retirement system, not one that is a gamble that taxpayers have to be accountable for.