The Public Employees Retirement System of Nevada is in desperate need of a name change. The agency that runs the state’s pension plan is serving up huge bowls of gravy, no retirement required.
Anytime PERS has come under attack for providing overly generous benefits, its defenders have cited average benefit figures: monthly payments of $2,654 to regular retirees with an average age of 65, and $4,637 to retired police and firefighters with an average age of 59. That’s enough for a dignified retirement at an appropriate age. And it was hard to argue against those figures because PERS wouldn’t release anything more. It considered individual benefit data confidential.
But PERS’ years of keeping benefit information secret are over. The Nevada Supreme Court last year ruled pension data are public records, and last week the Review-Journal offered the public their first glimpse at what some high-profile government retirees are receiving.
What shocked me wasn’t the number of people receiving a one-month, high four-figure or five-figure benefit. What shocked me was the number of people collecting those checks who aren’t retired.
You see, PERS doesn’t require anyone to actually retire to collect a pension. It’s really just generous deferred compensation that encourages highly valuable, highly paid people to quit government work while relatively young, then seek a new career to really elevate their standard of living.
Is this complaint just bitter jealousy from me and other critics? Not at all. We’re the backstop for these benefits. PERS has unfunded liabilities of between $10 billion and $40 billion, depending on how you measure risk. Those are promised benefits that, as of now, won’t be funded by the system’s annual collections and investment performance. The taxpaying public will be on the hook for benefits should the fund go dry, and there’s no way they’ll support paying higher taxes so retired public employees can rake in fat subsidies while collecting income from another gig.
Let’s start with a name that might surprise you: Clark County Sheriff Doug Gillespie. Bet you didn’t know that anyone who is elected sheriff has to formally retire from the police force before assuming office. The sheriff has a base salary north of $140,000. But in January, he also collected a gross pension benefit of $12,904, with a net payment of $10,874. If he receives the same check every month (PERS said January checks sometimes include credits and deductions), that’s an annual pension benefit of about $155,000, for total public-sector pay of nearly $300,000.
In truth, I think that’s low salary for the chief executive of an organization with thousands of employees, and one who is on duty 24/7/365. It’s just a lot more than the office advertises and the public knows.
Here’s another one: Family Court Judge Robert Teuton. The longtime prosecutor and juvenile justice official retired from the county when was appointed to the bench in 2008. As a judge, he collects an annual salary of about $160,000. In January, he also collected a gross PERS benefit of $15,325, with a net payment of $10,099. Assuming that benefit is relatively consistent throughout the year, his total annual public-sector pay is north of $300,000.
There are plenty of other recognizable figures cashing two checks these days. Las Vegas City Councilman Stavros Anthony is a retired Las Vegas police detective. His salary as a councilman is north of $75,000. His January PERS benefit was $12,249 gross, $10,218 net. He’s probably raking in more than $200,000 per year at your expense.
Former Assembly Speaker and Henderson Police Chief Richard Perkins is now a lobbyist with a long list of big-time clients (see www.theperkinsco.com). However his firm performs, he’s guaranteed a nice pension to supplement his earnings. His January PERS benefit was $10,450 gross, $8,325 net.
David Roger resigned as Clark County district attorney to become counsel for the police officers’ union. His January pension check topped $10,000. Former UNR football coach Chris Ault works as an offensive consultant for the NFL’s Kansas City Chiefs. In January, PERS paid him more than $17,000, nearly $23,000 gross.
And on and on. When a regular Joe retires and starts drawing Social Security, working reduces the benefit. Not so for government workers. That’s unfair, considering the public assumes all the risks for the payment of their benefits.
Set a minimum retirement age for public employees. No one can withdraw from a 401(k) or an IRA until they’re 59½ years old without penalty. Apply the same standard to government pensions, which, unlike retirement accounts, are guaranteed for life. Quit giving public employees an incentive to quit and draw two paychecks.
Then phase out pensions altogether for future government hires, before we all go broke.
Stadium, arena questions
Southern Nevada has no shortage of sports and entertainment venues, but more facilities are on the way. Proposals for new arenas and new stadiums have made a lot of news in recent weeks. The development of new special-event infrastructure will be one of the valley’s biggest stories of 2014, and it’s the subject of the Review-Journal’s February Hashtags and Headlines luncheon.
On Monday, Feb. 24, I’ll moderate a discussion on what’s driving these arena and stadium plans, whether they’ll boost Las Vegas’ tourism economy, whether the public should pay for any of the construction costs and whether any of the plans will bring a big-league sports franchise to town. The luncheon will be held at Texas Station’s Houston Ballroom from 11:30 a.m. to 1 p.m. Tickets cost $40 and can be purchased online at www.reviewjournal.com/hashtagsandheadlines or by calling Melissa McCabe at 702-383-0469 or emailing her at firstname.lastname@example.org.
The expert panel includes Don Snyder, former bank and gaming executive, noted philanthropist, current acting president of UNLV and chairman of the university’s stadium authority board; Rick Arpin, senior vice president and corporate controller of MGM Resorts International, point man on his company’s new Strip arena project and member of UNLV’s stadium authority board; and Jeremy Aguero, principal at Applied Analysis and numbers expert on all things Nevada.
The discussion will cover plans for MGM Resorts’ privately funded arena; a proposal for a public-private arena in downtown Las Vegas; an on-campus stadium at UNLV to replace the remote, outdated Sam Boyd Stadium; and whether the valley needs a new minor league baseball stadium to replace Cashman Field.
The food is great, but the conversation will be better.
Glenn Cook (email@example.com) is the Las Vegas Review-Journal’s senior editorial writer. Follow him on Twitter: @Glenn_CookNV. Listen to him Mondays at 4 p.m. on “Live and Local with Kevin Wall” on KXNT News Radio, 100.5 FM, 840 AM.