A controversial 19-member panel looking into the possibility of snatching excess pension cash to pay for other retirement benefits for city workers has been tossed on the junk heap.
“I’m not so sure a 19-member committee is all that functional,” said T.J. Barnes, who chaired it. “It didn’t seem like it was going to be worth everybody’s time.”
He called it “doomed to failure” because of its size and the “huge conflicts of interest” that many of the union-affiliated members had.
Replacing it is a seven-person GASB 45 Committee, named for an accounting rule and again headed by Barnes, will examine the prospects for saving millions for taxpayers by transferring cash from the pension funds to a new account set up to cover the future tab for health care coverage for retirees.
Mayor Art Ward said he dumped the initial committee for a trimmed-down new one because he is “trying to look for the most efficient way to address the issue.”
Ward said he made the change in the makeup of the panel because Barnes asked him to do it.
“I respect his opinion,” the mayor said.
Though it remains unclear what the city can do, it is eyeing the excess pension funds because using them would be the simplest, cheapest way to get the $72 million necessary to cover the anticpated future cost of post-employment benefits other than the pensions themselves.
City Comptroller Glenn Klocko said that coming up with the necessary money, which doesn’t have to be done overnight, is a “problem child” for officials who don’t want to hit up taxpayers for the money if they can find an alternative.
Barnes, the chair of the city’s Republican Party, said that Bristol is one of the few cities in America that has enough pension money to consider shifting excess cash into the new health care fund.
“We’re extremely lucky to even have it as an option,” Barnes said.
“As long as it doesn’t hurt integrity of existing benefits,” he said, the proposal “can be a win-win for everybody.”
Ward said the new committee consists of trustees of the different city pension funds and also includes the Board of Finance chairman, the city treasurer and Barnes.
Barnes said that under the law, it’s the trustees “who make recommendations to do anything to those funds” so it was important to ensure they were responsible for looking into it.
Barnes said that without the change in the composition of the panel, he wouldn’t have stayed on it.
Ward said that his choice to pick 19 people for the first board “was probably more idealistic than realistic.”
Plus, he admitted, the panel would have been unwieldy and less likely to reach a consensus.
“I’m busy as can be,” Barnes said. “I’m not going to spend my time as a volunteer to accomplish nothing. We’re either going to do this or not do this.”
Barnes said that it is rare for a municipality to possess pension funds that have more money than is needed to pay off future claims – which is still the case even after the Wall Street collapse this fall.
“It’s one of the few silver bullets” available to save money for taxpayers, Barnes said, and it would be “a big mistake” not to explore using it.
“We are extremely lucky to even have it as an option,” Barnes said.
Ward said that the new committee will make its recommendation to a joint session of the City Council and the finance board, which would have the final say.
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