I mentioned Friday that Warwick Mayor Scott Avedisian’s Projo op-ed had ducked the biggest problem facing the city pension system: its massively underfunded pre-1971 plan for police and firefighters.
I spoke with Avedisian about that yesterday, and he reminded me that the city is 15 years into a 40-year program for shoring up the plan, which is known as Police/Fire I and had 470 active and retired participants as of 2007.
It was actually then-Mayor Lincoln Chafee who put in place the 40-year payment schedule back in 1995, with contributions set to continue until 2035. (Avedisian said Joe Walsh also studied the idea when he was mayor in the late ’70s and early ’80s, “but it never got off the ground.”)
The auditor general’s office says Warwick hasn’t been putting in its full annual required contribution to Police/Fire I over the last few years, but Avedisian said that’s because the 40-year period is longer than the 30-year one used by both the auditor general and the Governmental Accounting Standards Board, or GASB, which governs these things.
For those well-versed in the world of pension law, here’s how Warwick explains its 40-year plan to bondholders (emphasis mine):
The City’s annual contribution to the plan [is] … based upon a funding policy which provides for the payment of the annual cost plus an amount which will amortize the July 1, 1995 unfunded actuarial accrued liability as a level percentage of payroll over a 40-year period ending June 30, 2035, plus 20-year amortization of experience gains or losses, method changes, assumption changes or plan changes since July 1, 1995, as a level percentage of payroll. This funding policy is based on the City’s pension ordinances.
The funding policy does not comply with GASB Statement No. 27 that requires the annual required contribution be determined using an amortization period not in excess of 30 years. GASB Statement No. 27 also required amortization payments in a closed plan, such as this one, either be based on a level-payment approach or reflect the expected decrease in future payroll for the closed active group.
It’s easy to get lost in all this legal minutiae, but we’re talking about real money here: Warwick taxpayers contributed $12.6 million to Police/Fire I in 2009 alone, and almost $55 million in the five years before that. And it’s just one of five city pension plans they’re funding; the others needed another $9 million or so in 2009.
With that in mind, I asked Avedisian if he really thinks Warwick will be able to keep making the required payments all the way until 2035.
“Yes,” the mayor replied. “That’s why we went to the 40-year plan.”
“However,” he continued, “one of the issues here is when you have changes in administration, a new administration may decide they’re not going to put in what the actuaries advise it.” That, of course, would throw the whole 40-year plan out of whack.
Avedisian and his aides have therefore been looking for ways to basically tie the hands of future city leaders so they will continue with the 40-year schedule. But “you can’t really constrict what the rights are of the mayor and a council in the future,” he acknowledged. “People say it’s just a power grab.”
Unfortunately for Avedisian, it also looks like he’s chasing a moving target.
From 1997 to 2007, the assets Warwick had set aside to cover Police/Fire I rose 41%, from $54 million to $76 million. So far so good.
The problem is, Pension/Fire I’s long-term liabilities didn’t stand still while its assets rose; those grew, too, by 27% – from $220 million to $279 million. I’m no actuary, but that seems like bad news.