Pension Burden Grows As Retirees Live Longer

WHEELING – With today’s average life expectancy around 79 years, a Wheeling police officer or firefighter who retires at age 50 is likely to draw pension benefits for about 30 years.

Compare that with 1961, the year West Virginia’s Consolidated Public Retirement Board was created, when the average American lived only 70 years.

That disparity in life span is a factor Wheeling Finance Director Michael Klug believes shouldn’t be overlooked as cities struggle to keep up with massive unfunded public pension liabilities.

In West Virginia, police officers and firefighters don’t receive Social Security – but those with at least 20 years of service may begin drawing their pensions at age 50, with the level of benefits based on longevity.

Someone who retires at the minimum age and service requirements will receive 60 percent of their average annual salary or their top three consecutive years of salary, whichever is greater, while a retiree with 30 years of service who is at least 50 would earn the maximum benefit of 75 percent.

For example, a police officer or firefighter who retires at 50 with an average annual salary of $40,000 would receive anywhere from $696,000 to $870,000 in pension benefits by the time they are 79 years old.

“I think the (retirement) age needs to be looked at. … People are living longer. I think that needs to be adjusted for today’s realities,” Klug said.

But he’s not sure whether it is realistic from a political standpoint to expect state lawmakers to make those changes.

“That might be a very hot potato,” he said.

“But it’s not just Wheeling. It’s a nationwide problem.”

Wheeling is in no immediate danger of being unable to meet its yearly obligations to the 234 police and fire retirees and their survivors collecting benefits. The police and fire funds are expected to take in about $9 million during 2014-15 – $2.8 million more than they will pay out – but much of the burden of achieving that security will fall squarely on the shoulders of city taxpayers.

In Wheeling, police and fire pension costs will consume 12 percent of the city’s 2014-15 budget, as the city will contribute $3.84 million to the funds, and that percentage will only increase. Within eight years, because of a state-required 7-percent increase in annual contributions, the pension cost will rise to $6.6 million in 2022-23 – more than 22 percent of this year’s budget.

Assuming other revenue sources remain relatively constant – a big assumption, given the continued decline in gambling proceeds – that means the city will have to come up with some combination of $2.8 million in additional revenue or spending cuts by then.

“You’ve got to expect at some point in time it’s going to have an effect on city services,” Klug said. “Something’s got to give.”

As of July 1, 2012 – the most recent date for which Wheeling has actuarial reports available – Wheeling’s total police and fire pension liabilities were $51.6 million and $61.8 million, respectively. Fund balances of $14.6 million for the police and $13.2 million for the firefighters leave a total unfunded liability of about $85.6 million.

Those numbers likely have declined somewhat, as the city has grown those fund balances by $3.9 million and $3.5 million, respectively, since that report was released.

In addition to the police and fire pensions, Wheeling has a separate fund for other municipal employees. At $36.5 million, that plan is more than fully funded – which Klug attributes to the city having control over retirement age and benefit levels.

Police officers and firefighters “can retire at 50. In municipal, you can’t retire until 65. That’s the biggest reason there’s such a difference,” he said.