Tuesday, July 28, 2009

Is Springfield's Police-Fire Pension Plan Doomed?

Or: Take that Smoking Gun Away from that Straw Man!

The first paragraph of Sunday's Springfield News-Leader article, "Observer scours pension's past for cause of shortfall" began not as a paragraph but, as a single question:

"When it comes to the city's police-fire pension woes, how much more does the past have to offer?"

That's an interesting question, isn't it? Should past mistakes weigh into any discussion of the police and fire pension task force as they are seeking a solution to the underfunded police and fire pension plan?

In "Life of Reason," Vol. 1, "Reason in Common Sense," philosopher, essayist, poet and novelist George Santayana wrote, "Progress, far from consisting in change, depends on retentiveness. When change is absolute there remains no being to improve and no direction is set for possible improvement: and when experience is not retained, as among savages, infancy is perpetual. Those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it."

The quote brought forth many variants, according to "Wikiquote," among them: "Those who cannot learn from history are doomed to repeat it;" "Those who do not remember their past are condemned to repeat their mistakes;" "Those who do not read history are doomed to repeat it," and; "Those who fail to learn from the mistakes of their predecessors are destined to repeat them."

Today's philosophers, Mayor Jim O'Neal, who has sloughed off such questions as a seeking merely to asign blame, and Pension Task Force Chairman Jerry Fenstermaker, along with many of the Task Force members, who say discerning past mistakes which contributed to the pension plan's current massive shortfall will not change or affect the recommendations handed down to the Council and, perhaps, journalist Amos Bridges, who has to ponder and ask readers to ponder how much that dusty old history has to offer, seem to disagree with Santayana.

"...that's of no benefit to the community or the task force right now," said Jerry Fenstermaker, the group's chairman. "We need to put together a plan of action ... If you go and do all this backtracking, you're not going to get to any different recommendations." - Springfield News-Leader, "Observer scours pension's past for cause of shortfall," page 1.

Present City Manager Greg Burris, while noting, "We've tried to be very accommodating and very transparent," about past history related to the pension plan, in the News-Leader article added, "If other people want to delve further, we can keep trying to go farther in layers." That's one of the reasons for the citizens task force, he said.

Certain members of the task force have, in the past, suggested that looking into the causes of the pension plan's shortfall is not a part of their charge. Again, in the News-Leader article in Sunday's paper, reporter Amos Bridges noted, "city officials and most members of the task force say that work has been done and that dwelling on the past further is a distraction."

The first charge listed on the formal "Task Force Charge" pertained to determining the scope of the problem, and later states:

"Please be aware that a significant commitment of time and effort will be required of all task force members in order to fully research the problem, analyze various options, and select one or more recommended solutions to address the problem. I encourage the Task Force to set an aggressive meeting schedule in order to permit a thorough analysis and the development of recommendations by the report due date noted above."

But, even though citizens might have expected the task force to fully research the problem and provide a thorough analysis, it appears there is an attempt being made to reduce the concerns of the citizens of Springfield who seek answers to the causes of the pension plan's shortfall to an ill thought out and immature search for a single cause (smoking gun) with the motive of finding a single boogey man to blame (hang). I believe that is a straw man argument formed to distract the public from finding the answers they deserve.

Repeatedly, in the Sunday News-Leader article it was implied that certain concerned citizens expected to find a single "smoking gun," or person responsible for the shortfall.

These are quotes and paraphrased quotes by the reporter for the News-Leader from Sunday's article:

1. "To try to pin it (the pension shortfall) down to which piece of legislation or which city official signed off on it...." - Pension Task Force Chair Jerry Fenstermaker

2. "...there is no elevator speech for how this happened -- it doesn't boil down to any one single action." - City Manager Greg Burris

3. "There's no "smoking gun," he (City Manager Greg Burris) said, and it's likely those looking for one will continue to be disappointed." - attributed to City Manager Greg Burris by News-Leader reporter Amos Bridges

4. "O'Neal said he thinks part of the motivation for the continued questions boils down to a desire to know "who are we going to hang?"" -attributed to Mayor Jim O'Neal by News-Leader reporter Amos Bridges

5. "Going forward there have been numerous mistakes made, but there's not one thing you can hang your hat on." -Mayor Jim O'Neal

6. "... If there was a smoking gun, I didn't see it." -Mayor Pro Tem Dan Chiles

7. "...right now there is no single smoking gun, unless you want to point to the election of 1958 ..." -Mayor Jim O'Neal

I do not believe anyone is looking for a single cause of the pension's current shortfall, especially not those who have spent a great deal of time and energy in examining and researching the issue.

Who does believe there is a single cause of the shortfall, a single culprit to "hang," or a single "smoking gun?" If certain entities can characterize those seeking answers in such a light, they can make involved and time-contributing citizens seem ridiculous, marginalize them, discredit them and in the process make citizens who seek answers to legitimate questions fearful of asking those questions.

In fact, Alternate Pension Task Force Member Fred Ellison's actual statements, from that same article, never imply he believes there is a single "smoking gun" cause of the pension shortfall.

"Having studied the pension plan for more than a year, he (Ellison) recently has focused on increases to the pension multiplier granted in the 1990s as a primary source of the current shortfall." -attributed to Ellison by Amos Bridges News-Leader article page 1

"He (Ellison) thinks increasing the pension multiplier -- the number multiplied by years of service and final salary to determine a retiree's monthly pension -- from 2 percent to 2.5 percent between 1991 and 1993 could account for much of the shortfall." -attributed to Ellison by Amos Bridges, News-Leader article page 2

Every citizen of Springfield who has even the smallest interest in the pension issue must resoundingly cast aside the implied strawman argument that intelligent people, who would like to understand the historical actions which caused our police and fire pension fund to become so dismally underfunded, are simply a lynch mob looking for someone to hang or a single "smoking gun" cause of the short fall.

Are such implications being made to try to shift the focus away from a complete understanding of the pension issue, including an understanding of the mistakes that were made, because our City officials, City Council, Pension Board and Police and Fire Pension Task Force find it uncomfortable to hold accountable their own predecessors?

I'm tempted to agree that Mayor O'Neal, Pension Task Force Chairman Fenstermaker and the Task Force might have a point that understanding how the pension got into the troubled state it is in today will not, necessarily, change the ultimate recommendations made by the task force but, how can we know all the contributing problems will be addressed by the recommended solution if we do not know what all of the contributing problems were?

The larger issue is the public's right to know and understand how it happened. In fact, as reported in the News-Leader article in Sunday's paper, the Mayor agreed such questions are legitimate, even as he mischaracterized the motives of those who are asking them.

"Mayor Jim O'Neal, who with Councilman Dan Chiles helped organize Ellison's meeting with city staff, said he understands the desire to find a clear reason for the current predicament.

"I think it's a legitimate question," O'Neal said. "It was attempted to be answered during the campaign but evidently not to the satisfaction of all voters.""

Some educated people believe that knowing the answers, all the complicated answers, to how the police and fire pension plan became so underfunded, and having those involved in overseeing the pension plan's management during the decline of the pension plan's funded ratio, recognize, admit errors, and take responsibility for them, would go a long way toward healing the wounds inflicted on the citizen taxpayers of Springfield so that they might be better prepared to accept and support whatever recommended and approved solution the task force recommends and the City Council approves.

And, just an aside, when are City officials and newspaper reporters going to stop playing silly games, mischaracterizing the thoughts, motives and concerns of the citizens of this city in a, seeming, effort to downplay, marginalize, and diminish taxpayer's concerns?

If, as O'Neal stated in Sunday's newspaper article, these are legitimate questions, then they are legitimate questions, period. Since I have yet to hear any citizen who has spent serious time examining the issue make any statement to suggest they expect to find a single cause or a single individual to blame for the pension's underfunding, I do not believe they exist so, why is it being suggested in what is, supposedly, a straight news report, mind you, they do exist? Who are they? Bring them, quote them.

Anyone who has spent any time at all looking at this complicated issue understands there have been many contributing causes to the pension plan's reduction in funded ratio.

Statements such as those found in the News-Leader's Sunday article were unnecessary, and served no purpose, unless it was an underlying desire to characterize those seeking answers to serious questions as some sort of fire and brimstone lynch mob looking for someone to tar, feather, and run out of town on a rail.

Hogwash! There is a very small handfull of people in this City who have taken the time to study, research and try to understand all the contributing factors that caused the pension to be in the state it is in today. It isn't necessary to tar and feather any one, and especially not those who are seeking answers to these complicated but, legitimate questions.



Anonymous said...

....those seeking answers to serious questions as some sort of fire and brimstone lynch mob looking for someone to tar, feather, and run out of town on a rail.

The public mob deserves some answers before we send in another 200 million dollars which will certainly "go away again" in 10 or 20 years....with the same system in place

WHAT is finnie still doing on the CU Board ??

BBrown said...

Jackie, this is a great post. That article struck me funny, too. You were in your element on this one. Well done.

Busplunge said...

"Statements such as those found in the News-Leader's Sunday article were unnecessary, and served no purpose, unless it was an underlying desire to characterize those seeking answers to serious questions as some sort of fire and brimstone lynch mob looking for someone to tar, feather, and run out of town on a rail."

Another approach is to frame the information seekers as 'aginners', imply that they are just trying to 'stir the pot' or 'have an ax to grind' pr 'crazy' as in 'crazy Jim Lee'.

Dang, we can't all be cheerleaders like Ralph was!

Anonymous said...

....Dang, we can't all be cheerleaders like Ralph was!

Can Ralph be hired to jump up and down at certain events ???

or train someone else to jump on the Council ??

Fred B. Ellison said...

The "Straw Man" appreciates your comments because he is very tired of getting beat up for trying to ask the right questions and the answers that the public deserves.

chestnut expressway said...

Seems like the idea might be to fix this disaster once and for all,

which will then allow more time to correct whatever Finnie is doing over at CU....