Inquirer Editorial: Council seems reluctant to pass pension reform

Council President Darrell Clarke CLEM MURRAY / Staff Photographer

City Council still hasn't scheduled a public hearing on the Kenney administration's plan for pension reform, which makes you wonder if it is shy about imposing money-saving rules on city employees to reduce the pension fund's $4 billion-plus deficit.

On its face, Bill No. 161109 is not controversial. For years, the sad state of the municipal pension system has been like the weather: Everyone in City Hall talks about it, but no one does anything about it.

To his credit, Kenney is seeking to change that. Last year, he got District Council 33, the union that represents the city's blue-collar workers, to agree to make changes in its members' pensions.

Current employees, who now contribute 3.9 percent of their pay to the pension fund, would be asked to contribute more, but on a sliding scale depending on their salaries. New employees would enter what is called a stacked-hybrid plan: a conventional pension on the first $50,000 of their salary, with a city contribution to a 401(k) plan on the rest.

In exchange, the Kenney administration agreed to wage increases and made a one-time payment to DC33's health and welfare fund. For DC33, it was a good trade. Most of its 10,000 members make less than $50,000 a year, so a lot of the reforms would not apply to them.

It's a different matter for other city employees, members of DC47, the white-collar union, and the police and firefighters unions, many of whom make significantly more than $50,000 a year.

It would also make a difference for the 5,000 city employees who are not union members - a list that includes civil service and exempt employees at the top of government, many with salaries exceeding $100,000 year.

Contracts for the unions involved expire June 30. The administration will have to negotiate (with DC47) or win the concessions through arbitration (with the police and fire unions) to get the pension changes it seeks.

It's a different matter when it comes to nonunion employees. Bill No. 161109 would have extended the pension reforms to the 5,000 nonunion employees and to elected officials. Passage would have meant not only significant savings, but also could be used as leverage to get the unions to agree to changes.

The bill followed the administration plan - except it excluded future elected officials from the hybrid plan. That involved only a handful of people - about 25 in total, including any future mayor and Council members, so it would have a meager cost.

But the administration wanted that provision out of the bill, arguing that it would be harder to get the unions to agree to the new plan if they could argue it was not uniform for all employees.

Council President Darrell Clarke's office was asked Wednesday whether a hearing had been scheduled on Bill No. 161109. Spokeswoman Jane Roh said, "Not as of today." A hearing scheduled earlier was postponed because Clarke had to be out of town. Council subsequently held additional briefings with administration officials.

This proposal is too important to get lost in the fog. A public hearing is needed before it can be brought up for a vote. Schedule the hearing.

A version of this editorial initially appeared in the Daily News.