Make pension details for public employees public, again

Steve Harry is a retired state employee who since 2009 has published stories and reports on public policy on the website steveharrypublicpolicy.com. He lives in Lansing. Steve Harry is a retired state employee who since 2009 has published stories and reports on public policy on the website steveharrypublicpolicy.com. He lives in Lansing.

I may have been responsible for your losing access to a bit of formerly public information. Sorry.

Several years ago, I worked for the state Office of Retirement Systems and later for the Municipal Employees' Retirement System (MERS), which enabled me to learn quite a lot about pension systems. After I retired, I created a website so that anyone who wished could read essays and reports I wrote on public policy.

With my background in public pensions, I thought it would be fun to publish pension details for City of Lansing retirees, so I sent Freedom of Information Act requests for pension information for employees who retired in 2010 and after.

The city provided the information to me in the form of a Retirement System Calculation Sheet, a one- or two-page document which summarized the manual calculation of the pension. (The city is in the process of automating the system.) On my website, I listed the retirees, along with the pension amount, the factors used in the calculation, and a link to an image of the calculation sheet.

While attending a Retirement System Board meeting in the fall of 2012, I heard mention of a Senate bill amending the Public Employee Retirement System Investment Act. I looked it up online and was shocked to find a passage that prohibited public employers from releasing "information regarding the calculation of actual or estimated retirement benefits for members of the system . . ."

I started a one-man campaign to get that passage removed, writing letters to my state representative and senator, the members of the senate committee that was hearing the bill, and to Governor Rick Snyder. It did no good. Snyder signed the bill December 5, 2012 and it went into effect at the end of March 2013.

I tried to find out who was responsible by purchasing a recording of the Senate Appropriations meeting in which it was discussed. The FOIA exemption was not mentioned.

In response to a story on the exemption I posted in March of this year, a reader told me that its placement might violate Article IV, Section 24 of the Michigan Constitution which says (in part), "No law shall embrace more than one object, which shall be expressed in its title." I assume the purpose of this provision is to keep legislators from hiding controversial items in unrelated bills so other legislators - and the public - won't notice. In this case, it is a FOIA exemption in a law that addresses retirement system investments.

It apparently did go unnoticed.

Apart from a story on a national website that seems to stem from a story I posted in December 2012, I've never seen anything on it in state or local media or from the Michigan Coalition for Open Government.

I've considered challenging the constitutionality of the provision in court, but that could be expensive. Instead, I am hoping that one of our current representatives or senators will read this and take it upon him/herself to do the right thing and make pension information for public employees available to the public - again.

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Comments

Thu, 09/10/2015 - 9:30am
Mr. Harry, I would imagine your apology came from a religious experience you must have had after you retired. Your expose clearly left out your reasoning during employment to protect personal employee information. I for one would like you to be a little more detailed in why at the time you protected it and now, while on an apparent tyrant, trying to undo what the state taxpayers paid you to do. I can easily fit you in the same category of legislatosr that admits moral wrongdoing, misuse of state resources, deceive others to cover up their wrongdoing, and want a second chance to drive the car that wasn't crashed. Out with all of you.
Rick
Sat, 09/12/2015 - 5:35pm
As you hide behind an anonymous name... Yup, Harry - you are scary and apparently angry about something or someone.
Bill Laidlaw
Thu, 09/10/2015 - 9:50am
Are pension payouts of teachers and public employees subject to State of Michigan income tax?
didisaythat
Thu, 09/10/2015 - 10:50am
Indeed they are.
Todd
Thu, 09/10/2015 - 2:29pm
The application of the state income tax to Michigan Public School Employee Pensions was only changed recently. Prior to that they were tax free. Unlike private 401(k) withdrawals which to my knowledge have always been state taxable.
Ned S. Curtis
Fri, 09/11/2015 - 8:23pm
Yes, public school retirees pay full State and Federal income taxes on their pension payments.
Urbanite
Thu, 09/10/2015 - 11:05am
People who work for the public must have nothing to hide. How else will public trust be (eventually) restored? Some may be shocked (Shocked! ) to learn the size of some pension benefits, but remember in order to hire competent people into public service and away from the private sector, salaries and fringe benefits must be competitive. Also remember that stock options from one's employer are not possible if one is working in the public sector. I say take the mystery out of the calculations so the suspicions may vanish.
Charles Richards
Thu, 09/10/2015 - 2:01pm
What we really need is information about the health of all of our public pension systems. Why isn't it headline news when required contributions aren't made? Many pension systems are assuming unrealistic rates of return on their investments; that will result in huge shortfalls in funding that the taxpayers will be obligated to make up.
Todd
Thu, 09/10/2015 - 2:39pm
The crime here is the defined benefit plan itself. With life spans increasing, advancement in healthcare, declining number of employees in MPSERS, increasing number of recipients, and low interest rates, how can't there be a crisis. The plan suffers from all the problems of Soc Sec. Benefits that are too rich, too many beneficiaries and too few contributors. I would support doing a cash payout for all current members and closing the system. Offer people $0.90 on the dollar and bond for it. It would instantly freeze the liability and the future costs would be fixed. Plus interest rates are very low right now.
Breezy1099
Thu, 09/10/2015 - 3:25pm
I can appreciate the taxpayer's right to obtain information on government spending. However, as a fellow taxpayer do I have no right's to privacy? Why does my name need to be attached to the financial data made available to the public? What do my fellow taxpayers (and those who do not pay taxes) gain from having my name, other than to act out their dream to fulfill the role of Gladys Kravitz? If you believe I have no rights to privacy, as a civil servant, than I propose complete transparency for all Michigan citizens where monies are exchanged with the government. When will you FOIA and publish every Michigan citizen's name that owes our government taxes (including amount) and those that have defaulted on tax payments? How about publishing the names of citizens who receive government funds (i.e. welfare and Social Security)? I find your article missing a key component....YOUR State of Michigan pension information for all to see!
Thu, 09/10/2015 - 10:49pm
My state pension is $1152.19 and my MERS pension is $927.62. Those are reduced amounts because my wife will get my full pension if I am the first to die. My email address is stevenrharry@gmail.com if you have further questions. Defined benefit pension systems are soaking up an ever increasing share of public funds. The complexity of pension calculations has turned out to be a wonderful way to conceal excess compensation. Attaching names to pension amounts helps us understand the problem. It is indeed an invasion of privacy, but a sacrifice public employees must be prepared to make.
Fri, 09/11/2015 - 10:48am
And my actual pension calculation sheets are at steveharrypublicpolicy.com/essaysLTE/PensionDetails/PensionSheets.htm.
Ned S. Curtis
Fri, 09/11/2015 - 8:29pm
How convenient for you, Steve. What do you mean by "conceal excess compensation....??"
candice
Fri, 09/11/2015 - 2:22pm
If I can have access to every employed Michigan citizen's W2's and pension statements, I'll gladly give you mine. How much I make in my state pension is, quite frankly, no one's business. Making this information public, with my name attached to it, also makes me more vulnerable to identity theft. I was a Civil Servant, not a Civil Slave. I have the same financial right to privacy as any other Michigan resident. If you would like to make your information public, that is your business. As for me, I want my privacy. That should be respected.
mike
Fri, 09/11/2015 - 7:36pm
Allowing access to an individual's benefit calculation detail does absolutely nothing but invade an individual's privacy. private or public plans --- make no difference. This detail should not be disclosed. The problem is NOT about lack of public detail. The benefit formulas are generally accessible by obtaining the contracts or by other means. You can then figure out the benefits based on the formulas. The problem is also NOT about defined benefit pension plans, which have been demonstrated to be the most efficient means of providing decent pensions. The problem IS, and this is a huge problem with most Michigan municipal pension plans, is the governance of these plans. The board of trustees generally consists of and are driven by those elected officials, or their appointees, who are responsible for negotiating those benefits as well as determining if those negotiated benefits are sustainable and reasonable for the long term. And unfortunately, long term is till the next election. Hence the conflict.
Sat, 09/12/2015 - 1:29pm
I disagree that pension amounts can be figured out based on the formulas. You have to know the employee's years of service. You can figure that out from hire and termination date, but you'll have to submit a FOIA request to get that. You might be able to find the multiplier if you know where to look on the employer's website. But you cannot know the final average compensation (FAC) even if you know the employee's salary,because there is this strategy called "spiking" in which employees save up sick and annual leave and work as much overtime as possible to pump up earnings in those last years. And public employee unions work to get all kinds of payments other than salary included in the definition of FAC, As a result, pensions have been known to exceed salaries (steveharrypublicpolicy.com/essaysLTE/Essay20121221.htm). It is true that public officials carry part of the blame because they often negotiate unsustainable benefits. They do that in bargaining sessions that are closed to the public and to their legislative bodies, thanks to Michigan's Public Employment Relations Act. But regardless of the generosity of the benefit, funding is a gamble, because it is based on assumed earnings rates on investments.
mike
Sun, 09/13/2015 - 1:34pm
You are missing my point. Publishing individual calculation detail does nothing other than invade privacy. The underlying detail, such as spiking, addons and such are common features of those types of pension plans. Those and other such features, and the potential abuse of those features, are the result of a failing system which allows the local politicians to be both the negotiator and gatekeeper where current benefits are granted while the costs of those benefits are usually not accurately identified, thereby forcing future taxpayers to bear the burden. Just look at the most recent actuarial report and you can see how this ponzi scheme unfolds. If you are concerned about the assumptions, as you stated - and you should be, then ask the trustees to provide substantiation of those assumptions and methods used as well as identify the risk associated with those assumptions and what they are doing to manage those risks.
Rick
Sat, 09/12/2015 - 5:34pm
We need to create a constitutional amendment (MI) that says whatever applies to the public needs to also apply to the state - legislature and executive branch included. Too many times the legislature passes something then exempts itself from the rules. Taxes, employment rules, discrimination, transparency, etc. Enough is enough. Oh, - and make it apply at the federal level as well.
Mike
Wed, 09/30/2015 - 1:54pm
Are we done here .?? If so, too bad. Steve touched on a very important issue. He thinks that by foi ing the info, then the brakes will be put on the abuse. I think state intervention is needed. However, please note state of Michigan practices the same ponzi scheme. Anybody there ??? Bridge, take this to the next level !!!