The city of Houston's main pension program has a billion-dollar funding shortfall because benefits have been boosted so high that many employees will earn more in retirement than they received while working, according to a report obtained by the Chronicle. A few will retire as millionaires.
To properly reduce the shortfall, taxpayers would have to put nearly $100 million extra into the fund next year, according to an analysis prepared for the pension's board.
Further, the city cannot reduce the benefits for any employee who already has worked five years, thanks to a Texas constitutional amendment passed by voters last fall.
As a result, the city is considering closing the plan to new members and moving new employees into a less generous plan. The only alternatives might be a tax increase or widespread layoffs, city finance officials said.
UPDATE: Okay, I've looked at this again, and I'm appalled. The details are amazing.
Today's problems can be traced to 2001, when the pension, governed by a board whose majority is made up of current and retired city workers, asked the city to increase benefits. The city agreed, based on a Towers Perrin report that the city would not have to contribute more than 14 percent of its payroll.
The improvements to the employee-contribution program were substantial.
· In 1993, the program promised 52.5 percent of income for a retiree with 25 years of service. The new program promised 88.75 percent.
· To reach 65 percent of income in retirement, an employee now needs just 20 years of service, compared with the 25-35 years required by most cities.
· Only one other city surveyed gives a surviving spouse 100 percent of the pension. Others require their retirees to accept smaller pension payments in order for their survivors to keep receiving benefits.
· Houston gives a 4 percent cost-of-living increase, regardless of the actual Consumer Price Index computed by the federal government. Others give less or even none at all.
But the most expensive changes were revisions to a deferred retirement plan, available to any employee whose age and number of years of employment equal 70 -- for instance, an employee who is 50 years old with 20 years of service.
With a so-called "drop" account, the employee essentially "retires" for pension purposes but continues working at his normal salary. Meanwhile, his monthly pension benefit -- 65 percent of salary in the above example -- is paid into an account that he can't touch until he really retires.
In addition, the account receives whatever interest the overall fund is making on its investments, but always at least 8.5 percent, compounded daily, no matter how poorly those investments perform.
The employee also continues to contribute 4 percent of salary. And the monthly benefit gets an annual 4 percent cost-of-living increase.
In the case of a worker hired at age 22 who entered the deferred program after 24 years at a salary of $40,000 and retired for good at age 65, the lump sum waiting for him would be $2.75 million, Esuchanko calculated.