Don't Expect Municipal Pension Reform Bill This Year, Says Polisena
The mayor said he doesn't think the pension reform study commission will propose new legislation before the end of the 2012 legislative session.
It's been three months since state legislators created a study commission to suggest changes to laws governing municipal pension plans — and Mayor Joseph Polisena said during a recent interview that he doesn't foresee new bills being proposed by the panel in time for a General Assembly vote this session.
"You're not going to see it this year, because (legislators) are going to be gone by the time we come up with a solution, which will be, I want to say, October or November, so hopefully next year," Polisena explained. "Myself, Mayor [Allen] Fung [of Cranston], and Mayor [Angel] Tavares [of Providence], we're concernd that we have to fix the problem, not just throw more money at it — this is not a solution where you throw more money at it."
Polisena made the prediction after the town council meeting Monday night at Johnston Municipal Court — where councilors voted in favor of seven bills recommended by Gov. Lincoln Chafee to help cities and towns.
Senate President Teresa Paiva Weed and House Speaker Gordon Fox named Polisena to the panel as a representative of towns with fewer than 50,000 residents, and the mayor explained his intention to see reforms that will help all Rhode Island communities.
"One thing I've noticed is that it's a long process — I like to see action right away, but I've adjusted my patience," Polisena said. "We're getting there, but I want to make sure that the final outcome is going to be advantageous to the cities and towns, and that it's not going to be some window-dressing."
The mayor also explained that he thinks any changed must be to the fundamental structure of local pensions.
"Telling everybody 'It's best if we join the state system' is not the answer — there's still no money," said Polisena. "You have to fix the systems, you've got to go back and look at readjusting it — you've got people people in the past who made $50,000 as firemen, they retired as a lieutenant or a captain, and when they retire they're making $75,000 or $78,000. It just doesn't work."
For Polisena, the issue is a basic flaw in the economics of the current pension system.
"I use the analogy that, if you're bringing home $200 a week, and your wife is writing checks for $500 a week, the numbers just aren't there," Polisena said.
Two of the Chafee proposals that the council supported Monday night are bills that would let communities reduce disability pensions to 50 percent of current pay for retirees who can still work, and suspend cost of living adjustments, or COLAs, if the town system is less than 60 percent funded.
During his address to the council, Chafee noted that Johnston's police pension system is funded at about 27 percent.
Polisena said he appreciated seeing the council vote in favor of Chafee's legislation.
"I thought it was fantastic — the council, they get it. They saw the need to see some of the mandates to be reduced and to make [the laws] enabling. I was very happy with the council's decision [and] I know it meant a lot to the governor."
On the same night as the Johnston Town Council vote, the Coventry Town Council also endorsed Chafee's proposals by a 3-1 vote, CoventryPatch reported.
Polisena said he thinks Chafee's appearance in Johnston to ask for the council's support is a sign of how seriously the governor is taking the task of fixing some of the issues facing local communities.
"There's a lot of union opposition, but I really think the unions have to sit down and realize that they're not going to have these pensions, they're not going to have these benefits, if the system isn't fixed." explained Polisena. "It's better to give up a little bit now than to have nothing later."