Finance

My Big Fat Pension Payoff

Just two years ago, Ray Patchett worked for the city of Carlsbad, California, a coastal town in northern San Diego County. Patchett, now 61, had served...
by | September 30, 2009

Just two years ago, Ray Patchett worked for the city of Carlsbad, California, a coastal town in northern San Diego County. Patchett, now 61, had served as Carlsbad's city manager for 20 years. Before that, his lifelong career in public service included positions in a handful of other Southern California towns--from Manhattan Beach to Burbank. In 2007, Patchett retired.

His annual pension payments, if you're interested, are $239,635.80.

You can find Patchett's name--and thousands of others--on a site run by a citizens group called the California Foundation for Fiscal Responsibility. The nonprofit organization is pushing to reform the California Public Employees' Retirement System, or CalPERS, by limiting benefits for new hires and raising the retirement age. To draw attention to its efforts, the group has launched a campaign that's attracting criticism, controversy and no small amount of buzz. It's called the CalPERS $100,000 Pension Club, a searchable online database detailing every California retiree who draws more than $100,000 a year in pension payments from the state. On the CFFR Web site, against a background image of piles of dollar bills, you can find the name of each of the state's top-earning retirees--and exactly what their pension payments are.

Patchett would prefer not to have his personal financial information splashed across a Web site. "I knew that when I was a public employee, that kind of information was available for everyone to see," he says. "But my assumption was that once I was in the retirement system, which I perceived to be a private system, my compensation would be private. But apparently, I have no control over that."

Patchett's name shows up toward the top of the database--he has been featured on the site's "Top 10 List"--but he's not CalPERS' highest earner. That would be Bruce Malkenhorst, a retired administrator from the tiny industrial town of Vernon, who continues to receive annual pension benefits of nearly $500,000, despite having been indicted for embezzling public funds. Number two on the list is Joaquin Fuster, a retired UCLA professor drawing some $296,000 a year. In all, the $100,000 Club totals more that 5,100 members--a tally that's only going to grow over the next several years. "We think it's important for people to become more aware of the issue," says Keith Richman, a former state legislator who founded the Foundation for Fiscal Responsibility in 2007. "Publishing some of the large costs is a means of bringing attention to the problem."

Richman's organization is at the forefront of a small but growing number of groups that believe the public has the right to know exactly how much retirees receive. After all, they say, it's taxpayer money, and taxpayers ought to know how it's being spent. If the pensioners are embarrassed, if taxpayers are outraged--well, that's life.

Richman's group is the most vocal and the most organized, but his idea is catching on around the country. Newspapers in New York, Rhode Island, Illinois and elsewhere have published lists of retirees who earn six-figure pensions. The Boston Herald maintains a database of top pensioners similar to the one in California.

The publicizing of personal income is problematic. Some retirees say they worry for their safety; others don't want to be shoved into the limelight. Critics claim that publishing the identities of these retirees is unfair and that it's misleading to focus only on the retirees at the very top of the list.

California has become ground zero for this fight, and for obvious reasons. The state's pension obligations have increased dramatically since 1999, when lawmakers passed a bill boosting pension benefits and lowering the retirement age. In 2001, the state's pension costs totaled $160 million. This year, they're expected to run upwards of $3.4 billion. And CalPERS investments--the money that supports these annual payouts--have taken a beating over the past decade, as the dot-com bust, the housing crisis and the current recession have taken their toll.

But California is far from the only place feeling the pension pinch. Nationwide, states and localities face an estimated $433 billion in unfunded pension liabilities. While the Golden State has a unique set of problems, it's easy to see why the pension-publicity push could spread. "It wouldn't surprise me," says Keith Brainard, research director for the National Association of State Retirement Administrators, "if efforts are made to bring this up in other states."

Groups that support publicizing hefty pensions have momentum on their side. Last year, the California Supreme Court ruled that state retirees' payment data is public information, paving the way for the Foundation for Fiscal Responsibility's database. Since then, county courts in California seem to be falling in line. In July, a court in Contra Costa County ruled against a retired sheriff's captain who sued to block the release of her pension information.

Still, critics of the tactic say it paints a grossly distorted picture of what's really going on with state pensions. For starters, six-figure pensions make up only a tiny fraction of state retirement benefits. In California, the members of the $100,000 Club represent only 1 percent of the total number of state retirees. The average CalPERS pension is just under $24,000 a year. "The vast, vast majority of public employees do not even remotely approach the $100,000 level," says Edd Fong of CalPERS. "That 1 percent is really a red herring."

Furthermore, these people argue, it's disingenuous to imply that someone's pension payment is all taxpayer money. Public pensions may include personal contributions and elected benefits. Many retirees--Patchett among them--were able to invest additional amounts of their own money in the pension plan while they were working. "It's like looking at what someone received from a 401(k) and assuming that it all came from employer contributions," says Will Portello, an attorney who represented the Contra Costa sheriff's captain. "For this information to make any sense, you'd need really detailed information about individual pensioners' money backgrounds." When you present only the total pension figure, he says, "the picture is incomplete."

Punishing individuals by publicly airing their pension information doesn't accomplish anything, Portello says. The real focus, he suggests, should be on the pension system itself. "That would be much more constructive than flogging the individual retirees for the pension they receive under a contract worked out years ago that they didn't have that much to do with in the first place."

The question, though, is whether pension payout publicity will work to accomplish bigger pension-reform goals, such as the sustainability of the plans. Beth Almeida, executive director of the National Institute on Retirement Security, points out that conversations about pension reforms have typically been shaped by small-government advocates who are generally opposed to generous government pensions, a category she says includes the California Foundation for Fiscal Responsibility. "The debate has not been driven by a lot of in-depth economic analysis," she says. "The driving force has been ideological interest groups, and the process can get muddied when the conversation is overtaken like that."

And that may be the bottom line: Publicizing individual pension paychecks might not present an accurate picture of the public retirement system, but it gains the public's attention. Fat paychecks get big headlines. And for that reason, the idea of publicizing six-figure pensions isn't likely to go away, says Jack Dean, who runs a news site called PensionTsunami.com and works with the CFFR. "Pensions on their own are so boring. If you start talking about retirement benefits as a component of the state budget, the public doesn't get it. But they get it when they see someone getting something they're not."

Zach Patton  |  Executive Editor
zpatton@governing.com  | 

Join the Discussion

After you comment, click Post. You can enter an anonymous Display Name or connect to a social profile.

More from Finance