Taxpayer uprising the only answer

By Bertram de Souza

How can you tell a retired public employee from a private sector retiree? The man laughing all the way to the bank is from the ranks of the bloodsuckers. The man working as a greeter in one of those large box stores had his blood sucked — by those in government and other public entities.

Too harsh an assessment? No more so than the reality that is the public pension system. Whether PERS, STRS, police or firefighters retirement plans, the bottom line is the same: There is a pot of gold at the end of the rainbow that is replenished by public dollars. And as the statewide survey of the state’s public pension funds conducted by the Ohio Newspaper Organization revealed (several stories were published last Sunday in The Vindicator), the cost to local governments in the state is $4.1 billion a year. The costs will grow by $604 million to $768 million over the next five years.

But the study also revealed a truth that has been expressed in this space for many years: We’re stuck with the system because those who have the power to change it have neither the desire nor the motivation to do so. Indeed, members of the General Assembly in Columbus are beneficiaries of the public pension system. So, they aren’t willing to do anything that would reduce benefits.

In March 2008, there was a column in this space headlined, “It’s all about public pensions.”

All about money

Here’s what was written about the wages paid to local government workers:

“It should be getting clear by now that government is not about service to the public, but about exorbitant salaries for employees.

“More often than not, compensation has nothing to do with performance, but rather is driven by the public pension plan that is the ultimate money grab.

“Given that the median household income in Mahoning County was $38,393 (it was $21,850 in Youngstown), the salaries raked in by public employees give new meaning to the word obscene.

“Something needs to be done, but don’t hold your breath.”

As the Ohio Newspaper Organization study established, tax dollars will help ensure that retired teachers, cops, state workers and other government employees receive retirement benefits that many of their private-sector counterparts can only envy.

But the time has come to turn that envy into direct action. How? Through a constitutional amendment that does away with the public pension system and puts all government employees under the Social Security system.

With every major newspaper in the state revealing that the taxpayer tab for the public pension system in Ohio could easily top $5 billion a year in the not so distant future, the push for a dramatic change would be an easy sell.

Every private sector employee who has seen his or her pension frozen, 401K plan diminished and co-payment for health insurance coverage (if it is offered) increase is a yes vote for making public sector workers experience the real world.

Ridiculous practices

The constitutional amendment could also address other ridiculous practices that serve to make government employment so lucrative. (By the way, the best and brightest have little chance of getting on the public payroll because excellence is not the chief criterion for employment). The accumulation of vacation and sick time that is then liquidated at the highest rate of pay is an insult to every private sector worker who is required to use his annual vacation time within the year or lose it and must be legitimately sick in order to get time off from work.

But the main reason for ending the public pension system in Ohio is that is engenders mediocrity. The amount an employee earns in pension is calculated by a formula that takes into consideration the number of years of service, the age of the employee and the average of the three highest years of salary.

Hence you have below average performers not only staying on the public payroll for years and years, but you also have them grabbing jobs that pay more with an eye to boosting their pensions.

A constitutional amendment is timely, necessary and realistic.

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