Union Leader | State's 'stunning pensions' called lavish by taxpayer group
MANCHESTER — New Hampshire needs to reform its government-employee pension system, according to a Chicago-based taxpayer group that on Tuesday publicized the top pension payments for retired city, county and state officials.
The Chicago-based Taxpayers United of America said the “stunning pensions” are funded by taxpayers who struggle with crushing tax increases, falling home prices, rising unemployment and a painfully slow economic recovery.
But an official with the union that represents Manchester police officers quickly criticized the information, particularly its focus on highest-paid pensions rather than average or even lowest-paid.
“When you start throwing extremes around and using hyperbole, you’re not looking for a discussion, you’re pushing an agenda,” said David Connare, president of the Manchester Police Patrolman’s Association.
At a news conference, Taxpayers United released the top 25 pensions for police and fire, teachers, government officials, judges and county workers.
The New Hampshire Union Leader has reported most of the pensions in the past. In fact, Taxpayers United accessed the information after the Union Leader Corp. won a two-year legal battle that forced the New Hampshire Retirement System to divulge information on individual pensions.
High-ranking judges, police and fire officials receive annual pensions that top $100,000.
“Across the country, millions of bureaucrats are being paid billions, to do absolutely nothing,” said Jim Tobin, president and founder of Taxpayers United.
Taxpayers United reported that retired Manchester police Capt. Richard Valenti receives an annual pension of $133,634.
When pressed, Tobin said the average annual pension for a police officer in the New Hampshire Retirement System is $33,876 — about $100,000 less than Valenti’s.
Still, he said, that’s too much.
“These are outrageous amounts of money being stolen from the taxpayers, legally, by people who are sworn to serve and protect us,” Tobin said about the average pension.
Connare said that if Taxpayers United disclosed the bottom-25 earners, their pensions would amount to poverty-level income.
Last year, reforms of the pension system took place that require new and newly hired public employees to work more years to become eligible for pensions, said Marty Karlon, spokesman for the Retirement System. Formulas were altered to reduce the ability to alter income in order to boost pension calculations.
And public employees must contribute more toward their pension. Connare points out that police now pay 11.5 percent of their wages toward retirement.
The Legislature is studying further changes, including a system similar to a 401(k). Tobin said that is the best long-run option for public employee retirements.
Both Karlon and Connare took issue with the Taxpayers Union use of assumptions to calculate estimated lifetime pension payout. The organization calculated the lifetime pension by assuming that every worker retired at age 45 or 60 and lived to 85.
Under such calculations, Manchester police Capt. Valenti would earn $5.21 million over 39 years.
But Connare said Valenti was in his mid-50s when he retired. And people receive large pensions because their base salary grew as they stayed on the job well past their minimum retirement age, gaining raises and promotions, he said.
Tobin also took issue with non-uniformed public workers, most who can retire at 60 and earn a pension of $12,474 for the average worker; $21,321 for teachers. They would also receive Social Security benefits, which are a maximum of $22,000 a year.
“These are pampered government employees who get outrageous pension benefits and salaries,” he said. “My personal case is, I’m going to have to work until I drop to pay my bills, plus their lavish salaries.”
Tobin said he founded Taxpayers United in 1976. It has an annual budget of about $300,000, a mailing list of about 30,000 members and a staff of eight.
New Hampshire is the 19th state to have its highest-paid retirees disclosed by Taxpayers Union. In about half the states, Taxpayers United has to estimate pensions because the retirement system will not release them.