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EXCLUSIVE: Providence Unfunded Pension Liability Now At Least $831M

Thursday, February 06, 2014


With a system that is 31.3 percent funded and an unfunded liability of $831.5 million, Providence’s pension crisis is far from over according to a new actuarial report obtained by GoLocalProv.

The Jan. 31 report offers the first glimpse of the Providence retirement system in the wake of the city’s pension reform settlement with retirees, which was finalized last year. Prior to the settlement, the unfunded pension liability stood at $901 million, in July 2011. Without reform, the city actuary says the unfunded liability would now be $964.7 million, instead of $831.5 million.

But the funding ratio for the system actually edged downwards during the intervening two years, from 31.94 percent in July 2011 to 31.39 percent in July 2013. However, on a market value basis it increased from 31.4 percent to 32.4 percent. (See below slides for a breakdown of the numbers.)

Impact of pension reform disputed

“So even under the most optimistic analysis of the numbers and using the ‘market value’ of the assets, Providence’s pension fund is 32 percent funded? Find an honest expert who would describe this as remotely sound or healthy. The Taveras administration trumpets the $133 million saved by pension reform but is considerably more muted about the far more important fact that the pension system is still only 32 percent funded—to repeat, only 32 percent funded after pension reform,” said Monique Chartier, spokeswoman for the Rhode Island Taxpayers.

Providence owes $1.2 billion in pension promises and the system has $380.4 million in actuarial assets. But that actuarial estimate includes $57.2 million in contributions from the city for the following year. If future contributions are not included—as the actuary recommends in its report—the fund has a market value of $335.7 million. When actuarial adjustments are made for market losses, the amount drops further to $323.4 million, making the system 24.1 percent funded.

“Taking baby steps to turn the capital city’s woefully underfunded pension plan around may make for great sound bites in an election year but the numbers reveal that residents and all Rhode Islanders have grave reason to be scared, very scared about our economic well-being. Any suggestion that Providence is on its way to substantial financial recovery is simply not accurate,” said Lisa Blais, spokeswoman for the OSTPA, a taxpayer advocate.

Blais noted that the unfunded liability estimate does not—as a result of local bargaining—include the liabilities that the city has incurred for retiree health benefits.

“That number skyrockets us into the realm of debt in the billions,” Blais said. “While it’s appropriate to provide the proverbial tip of the hat to the people at the negotiating table who had a hand in slowing down the COLA payments and changing the way that they were formerly calculated, it is important to remember that the original local agreements were negotiated by some of the same players.”

Those involved in the city pension reform effort pointed to the latest report as an encouraging sign.

While the drop in the unfunded liability may not seem “remarkable,” Paul Doughty, the city firefighter union president described it as a “first good step” towards a healthy funded pension system. Michael Solomon, the city council president and also a candidate for mayor, touted the achievements of the pension reform settlement. He said the city must now focus on making its annual required contributions. (A spokesman for Mayor Angel Taveras did not respond to a request for comment. All major mayoral candidates responded to requests for comment. Their responses are below.)

Pension critic says unfunded liability could be over $1 billion

But some say the city may actually be understating the extent of its unfunded liability.

For one thing, the city is overstating its current assets by about $57 million because its estimates include its contributions to the pension fund in the following year, noted Michael Riley, a local private equity and hedge fund investment manager, who noted the actuary recommends the city discontinue the practice. “This is a highly unusual tactic distorting assets,” said Riley, who is also a GoLocalProv columnist.

Asked to comment, Solomon said, “We received this report yesterday. The city council will openly and directly review the pros and cons of making any recommended reporting changes.”

A larger issue is the assumed rate of return for the city’s pension investments. Before 2011, the city had an assumed rate of return of 8.5 percent. When the city dropped that by a quarter of a point to 8.25 percent, the unfunded liability jumped up by $72 million.

Riley and others say the assumed rate of return should be even lower. The city rate is still higher than the state’s, which, at the behest of state Treasurer Gina Raimondo, lowered its assumed rate of return from 8.25 percent to 7.5 percent in 2011. Some investment experts recommend an even lower rate. Moody’s Investors Service recommends 5.5 percent. Investor Warren Buffet has suggested 6 percent.

Using Moody’s guidelines, Riley says the total liability would shoot up from $1.2 billion to $1.6 billion. That would make the unfunded liability about $1.3 billion, roughly $500 million more than the official estimate.

“All of this calls into question the accuracy of the term ‘pension reform.’ The word ‘reform’ implies that the pension system is now in a reasonably sound condition. Clearly, the opposite is true,” Chartier said.

“Unlike his predecessor, Mayor Angel Taveras is a genuinely nice man who means well. However, his touting pension ‘reform’ as a fiscal achievement for the city begins to stray into the area of dishonesty notoriously frequented by his predecessor. Former Mayor David Cicilline repeatedly misrepresented as ‘excellent’ the overall financial condition of the city,” Chartier added. “Current Mayor Taveras is telling only one small part of the story about the financial condition of the city’s pension system—and doing so for the same reason, presumably, as the prior mayor: the desire for a ‘promotion’ to higher office. Mayor Taveras did not create the city’s very serious pension problems but neither, contrary to his implications, has he solved them.”

Firefighter union president defends city assumptions

Doughty, however, said those, like Moody’s Investors Service, which argue for a lower assumed rate of return are not disinterested parties. Doughty noted that financial institutions make money every time a transaction is made (like an investment). A lower rate would dramatically increase estimates of the unfunded liability, Doughty said: “The calculation at that point is the fund is much more—much more—unfunded.”

Higher estimates for an unfunded pension liability becomes an impetus for further pension reform, potentially including the creation of individual retirement accounts, instead of (or addition to) one pension fund with contributions from all workers pooled together, Doughty suggested. When financial institutions are processing transactions for thousands of workers, rather than just city, they stand to make more money, he concluded.

“To me there’s a conflict [of interest] there in what they’re saying,” Doughty said. “I’m not a fan of Wall Street. This is just a money grab.”

Doughty acknowledged that elected officials may be acting out of self-interest as well, aiming to keep estimates of unfunded pensions liabilities lower than they actually are. “Very true. I think there’s a tension there,” Doughty said.

But he said the political risk can go both ways for an elected official. Those who adopt the approach of Moody’s and lower their assumed rates of return are increasing costs for their communities and crowding out funding for bread-and-butter city projects, like re-paving sidewalks or building new playgrounds, according to Doughty.

When it comes to Providence, he said he stands by the current assumed rate of return of 8.25 percent that city officials have adopted. “I think somewhere in the 8s is fair,” Doughty said.

Candidates for mayor weigh in

GoLocalProv requested comment from every major mayoral campaign in Providence. All responded except for the sole GOP contender, Dan Harrop.

Two candidates, Brett Smiley, the former chairman of the Providence Water Supply Board, and Jorge Elorza, a former city housing court judge, emphasized the need to expand the tax base by attracting businesses to Providence.

“Those who have served the city deserve to retire with dignity. The top priority for our city needs to be growing our economy by investing in our strengths and supporting our business community so that we can have enough funds to meet our future pension obligations. That’s why we need a Mayor with the practical experience to hit the ground running and begin to strengthen our city's finances from Day One,” Smiley said in a statement.

Said Elorza: “We have a commitment to both our retirees and our children that must be honored, and it is equally important that we pay our bills and not lose sight of current responsibilities. The unfunded liability is down $70 million. As Mayor, I will accomplish both and continue to decrease that number by focusing on revitalizing our economy and continuing to look for savings to ensure our city can fulfill its obligation to both its retirees and residents.”

Asked if the most recent pension reform was enough to fix the system, Solomon touted its achievements: “Two years ago we reached a landmark settlement with our retirees and employees to reduce the unfunded liability by nearly 20 percent. We suspended COLAs for 10 years and finally eliminated the 5 and 6 percent COLAs that had haunted the city, and tied future COLAs to the consumer price index. These changes were fair, especially considering the city’s bargaining position. The most important thing we can do moving forward is to fully fund our annual required contribution.”

Solomon also defended the city on the assumed rate of return.

“Buck Consultants, the city’s former actuary, conducted an experience study in June, 2011 that forecasted 1,000 return scenarios. They determined that an 8.45 percent return over the next 30 years was likely. They wrote, ‘We believe the current 8.25 percent interest rate assumption can be supported based on our analysis assuming the target asset allocation continues, the assets earn the assumed rate of return and the City makes the recommended contributions,’” Solomon said in a statement provided by his campaign.

However, one candidate for mayor, businessman Lorne Adrain, disagrees. He says the city should lower its assumption. “This report shows the long-term consequences of short-term thinking. For too many years the City of Providence underfunded its pension system at the expense of retirees and future generations of taxpayers. As Mayor I will develop a transparent and balanced approach to solving the problem. I will make fiscal responsibility a top priority, including a more realistic, achievable return rate of between 5 to 6 percent,” Adrain said.

Unfunded liability: Providence on a 30-year payment plan

For now, regardless of whether how one views the $831.5 million unfunded liability the question remains: how will the city pay for it?

“The city’s funding policy is to make a payment each year which covers that year’s normal cost plus a payment toward the unfunded liability. The payments toward the unfunded liability will reduce the unfunded liability to $0 by June 30, 2040 in payments that increase 3.5 percent per year,” said Matt Clarkin, the internal auditor for the city.

The pension report shows that Providence is in the midst of decades-long amortization plan. Because of the unfunded liability, the report shows that the annual payments will increase dramatically in the future. The city’s contribution in the current fiscal year is set at $61.6 million.

Although annual increases are meant to be capped at 3.5 percent, the amount for fiscal year 2015 will be 8 percent higher—at $66.5 million—to account for the investment losses in 2009. Presumably, the city should have already paid for some of those, but it didn’t because it did not have a 2012 valuation of its pension system. (The last one was 2011. The new one is for 2013.)

“The 2012 report was not issued because the city was in the process of soliciting bids for a new actuary. The city does an annual valuation, but it is not uncommon for public sector retirement systems to perform biennial valuations,” Clarkin said. (The city is in the process of suing its former actuary, Buck Consultants, accusing the firm of an error in calculating savings from pension reform.)

Ten years from now, the normal cost of maintain pension benefits would be $9.8 million, but the total cost to the city will be $94.3 million because of the unfunded pension liability. In another decade, the normal cost would have been $13.9 million but the actual cost will be $132.4 million, according to the report.

It won’t be until June 30, 2040 that the entire unfunded liability is paid off, according to Clarkin.

“The Segal Consulting analysis shows the necessity for taxpayer contributions to rise inexorably year over year. In light of the fact that Providence already has the highest commercial tax rate and the seventh highest residential tax rate in the country, where in the world can this money come from? Business and residential taxpayers are demonstrably tapped out. Decades of extremely generous pensions have left the city with a staggering and completely unrealistic burden,” Chartier said.

Doughty doesn’t share that same sense of alarm but he said he considers all the attention that public pensions are getting to be “positive,” saying it’s a welcome change from the many years when pension reports went ignored. “The more attention you pay, the less shenanigans can go on,” Doughty said.

Stephen Beale can be reached at [email protected]. Follow him on Twitter @bealenews


Related Slideshow: Providence Pension Liability

A new report shows that Providence’s pension fund—even after the recent reform—is still in trouble. The below slides break out the key numbers for the pension fund, including the unfunded liability, the assumed and actual rates of return, the current level of benefits, and how long it will take the city to pay off the unfunded liability. Figures are current as of July 1, 2013 and are taken from the new Jan. 31 actuarial report from Segal Consulting.

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Unfunded Liability in 2013

Total Liability: $1.2 billion

Actuarial Assets: $380.4 million

Unfunded Liability: $831.5 million

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Unfunded Liability in 2011

Total Liability: $1.2 billion

Actuarial Assets: $380.4 million

Unfunded Liability: $831.5 million

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Percent Funded in 2013

Funding Ratio: The ratio of the amount of actuarial assets to the amount owed.

Funding ratio in 2013: 31.39%

Percent unfunded in 2013: 68.61%

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Percent Funded in 2011

Funding Ratio: The ratio of the amount of actuarial assets to the amount owed.

Funding ratio in 2011: 31.94%

Percent unfunded in 2011: 68.06%

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Rate of Return

Former Assumed Rate of Return: 8.5%

New Assumed Rate of Return: 8.25%

What the state’s assumed rate of return is: 7.5%

What Moody’s Investors Service says the assumed rate of return should be: 5.5%

What investor Warren Buffet says the assumed rate of return should be: 6%

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Actual Return on Investment

Actual Market Return in FY 2012: 1.49%

Actual Market Return in FY 2013: 11.35%

Current Assumed Rate of Return: 6.42%

Average Market Rate of Return for FY 12 and FY 13: 8.25%

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Impact of Lower Rates of Return

$72 million:The city unfunded liability increased by this amount when the city lowered its assumed rate of return by a quarter of a percentage point, from 8.5% to 8.25%

$506.2 million: The estimated increase in the unfunded liability were the city to use the 6% assumed rate of return recommended by Moody’s Investors Service.

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Retiree Pay – Fire and Police

Number on Active Duty: 834

Average Annual Pay: $61,325

Number of Retirees: 587

Average Retiree Age: 65.3

Average Retiree Annual Pay: $40,512

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Disability Pensions – Fire and Police

Number on Disability: 418

Average Age: 64.8

Average Annual Pay: $59,028

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Retiree Pay – Other City Workers

Number of City Workers: 2,164

Average Annual Pay: $38,687

Number of Retirees: 1,453

Average Retiree Age: 72

Average Retiree Annual Pay: $18,252

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Disability Pensions – Other City Workers

Number on Disability: 88

Average Age: 66.8

Average Annual Pay: $18,684

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Current Cost of Pension Fund

For 2013

City Contribution: $58.1 million

Employees Contribution: $10.9 million

Net Investment Return: $18.1 million

Cost of Retiree Benefits: $95.4 million

Note: Net investment return is the return on investments after investment and administrative fees have been paid.

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Cost of Pension Fund in 10 Years

Normal Cost: $9.8 million

Additional Cost Because

of Unfunded Liability: $84 million

Total Annual Cost: $94.3 million

Note: Total figure for the year includes a small second payment for the deferred liability.

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Cost of Pension Fund in 20 Years

Normal Cost: $13.9 million

Additional Cost Because

of Unfunded Liability: $118.5 million

Total Cost: $132.4 million

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Paying Off Unfunded Liability

Average annual increase: 3.5%

Number of additional years to pay off: 27

Fiscal year unfunded liability to be paid off by: 2040


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Unions are like a plague of locusts, eating everything in their path.
Once the land is barren, then what do they do? They complain that they are still owed future crops.

Comment #1 by Odd Job on 2014 02 06

Taveras solution to the problem is to lie. Don't worry. Like Cicilline, he will get away with it.

Illegal aliens are very expensive to teach, imprison, and treat at emergency rooms. Federal and state mandates are too expensive. Too much government, costing too much money, given the inadequate size and wealth of RI. Taxpayers fleeing; tax consumer flocking to the state. Welfare pays more than work. Why work? Un-policed government programs, which encourages scams that are ignored by authorities. Stifling rules and regulations governing employees that make it impossible to fire bad employees, especially government employees. I could go on and on.

No one can save Rhode Island. No one.

Comment #2 by Christopher Lee on 2014 02 06

Just wait until Taveras gives his state of the city address, we have a surplus lol.

Solomon is up to his fuzzy math again, he cant even pay off his loan with the city from 25 years ago, hardly a person we want for mayor! Meanwhile, he loans his campaign 250k and opens another business,but no money for the city!!!

Comment #3 by anthony sionni on 2014 02 06

Seems like democrats and union hacks have their heads in the sand. They're just hoping no checks bounce on their watch. Democrat "leaders" and union hacks are right, EVERYONE else is wrong.

Comment #4 by David Beagle on 2014 02 06

Im shocked that a member of the pension commission thinks 8% discount rate is ok.That's lunacy and its dangerous to the citizens of every city and town in Rhode Island.In 2014 it actually doesnt matter what any one thinks is an appropriate rate. Moody's will be using 6% or lower and the ratings agency is doubling the weight of pension liabilities in making municipal credit rating decisions.They will be the ones deciding bond ratings. My numbers reflect that and thus the liabilities determined by Moody's could be even higher. Providence has played games with asset figures and liabilities. The Accountants are questioning it and disallowing Providence's practices. GASB rules are changing and Providence has ignored the warnings. This is going to get ugly.The council and Mayor both need to get real and focus on the issue. The total liability more than doubles for Providence when OPEB is added in. The City is in deep trouble and negotiators need to go back and find 2 to 3 times the savings they just found to get them through the next 10 years. It is irresponsible on the part of the council , mayor or any member of the Pension Commission to portray anything other than potential disaster.

Comment #5 by michael riley on 2014 02 06

Sionni why don't you write about the scumbag PARE he is collecting 110k from state making over 150k from city looking for another pension. Uses the city vehicle for his own personal use. That is right he takes city vehicle to gym every morning hooks up with his s partner for BOOTCAMP on our expense. Remove this scum and you can add 3 more cops to the street and get rid of this greaseball.

Comment #6 by Jackson Teller on 2014 02 06

So he's another double dipper !

Comment #7 by anthony sionni on 2014 02 06

Am I missing something, or does this entire article ignore any unfunded liability for OPEB. Or, did the writer lop it all into one?
History has shown that a municipalities' unfunded OPEB requirements can often dwarf the pension shortfalls. At the very least they are worthy of being part of the discussion. Anyone??

Comment #8 by James Hackett on 2014 02 06

I don't really understand the point of putting these figures out to the public. Union hacks, retirees, and loyal democrat soldiers will never believe anything but what they're told to believe from their handlers. The opposition party? The opposition party is too small AND has no power to do anything but put the numbers out there, pretty much in a vacuum.

Comment #9 by David Beagle on 2014 02 06

OPEB was not included in article ...
$ 1.2 to 1.4 billion is a good guess
enormous number

Comment #10 by michael riley on 2014 02 06

831 million here 831 million thers big deal

Comment #11 by Howard Miller on 2014 02 06

Thanks, Buddy, you sure were a great "politician" -- buying union votes with pension benefits.

Comment #12 by G Godot on 2014 02 06

Michael: Your campaign to educate the public on the municipal pension crisis is noble and a good political tactic in my opinion. None of it will matter however. Pension commission members who believe an 8.25% assumed rate of return on a defined-benefit plan in today's environment simply do not understand the financial risk implied under that scenario. Regardless of the financial incompetence of the commission, or the city council, or the mayor, any debate about the city's financial future is over; these pension and OPEB liabilities are at such a level now that they cannot be satisfied at 100% on the dollar.

There is not a sufficient tax base in Providence to settle these obligations as they become due and when it comes time to write the check, there simply will not be funds to do so. It will be ugly, there will be sob stories posted all over, but I doubt a single liberal will acknowledge the truth behind what is to blame for the impending implosion of these plans.

Comment #13 by Ben Algeo on 2014 02 06

By the way, Odd Job, I loved your analysis. Much more succinct than mine, but right on the mark.

Comment #14 by Ben Algeo on 2014 02 06

And Mayor Taveras's response to this ongoing pension crisis, adopt band aid reform then get out of town (run for Governor). If voter's don't recognize the obvious analogy between his lackluster tenure and that of his political mentor David Cicilline, you need to see an optometrist!

Also, let's not forget that the issue of adopting meaningful, and structural, pension reform has been ignored for too long by Providence's Mayor's (that includes you Buddy) and do nothing City Council's.

The unrealistic responses by candidates Smiley and Elorza, exhorting a broader tax base, does nothing to address the structural problem. Quite simply, without significantly more reform (to reduce the unfunded liability) AND a major cash infusion,the Providence pension system is a ticking time bomb that WILL go off.

That the Firefighter Union President continues to hang on to a pie in the sky rate of return on investment (8.25%) just illustrates how many of the affected parties simply do not (or don't want) get it.

If I were a Providence retiree, I wouldn't sleep very well each night.

Comment #15 by Walter Miller on 2014 02 06

Solomon also defended the city on the assumed rate of return.

“Buck Consultants, the city’s former actuary, conducted an experience study in June, 2011 that forecasted 1,000 return scenarios. They determined that an 8.45 percent return over the next 30 years was likely.

The city is in the process of suing its former actuary, Buck Consultants, accusing the firm of an error in calculating savings from pension reform.

Sooooooo...believe our paid consultants when it comes to the return, but ignore the fact we are suing them for incompetence..

Plus, the General Assembly is way ahead of you on OPEB health care by introduce the bill to force municipalities to pay for Medicare costs if the municipality negotiates its retirees off any other health care plan and into Medicare.

Somewhere public service went from perhaps being less compensated relative to private sector in exchange for some security and more generous benefits to being required to have as or better compensation, lifetime benefits with no costs and secured by politicians, and the ability (of some) to manipulate the system or abuse the public trust for personal gain.

Comment #16 by Prof Steve on 2014 02 06

And where are the usual liberal suspects??? Notice how they run when facts and numbers are involved?

Comment #17 by joe pregiato on 2014 02 06

I think the City should just ask the wealthy residents and large businesses of Providence to come forward and bail out the pension system. Oooops. All of those people moved away a few years ago. Now what ya gonna do?

Comment #18 by Katy Sloop on 2014 02 06

Wow, mike! If that is indeed the case, I would guess that could be insurmountable.

Comment #19 by James Hackett on 2014 02 06

mike, what does the city acknowledge as the unfunded OPEB figure; and, how much are they allocating each year to defray that?

Comment #20 by James Hackett on 2014 02 06

A near do well city council,a succession of busted out,corrupt mayors,and a gaggle of connected union hacks = A $831 Million Unfunded Pension Liability.

Comment #21 by LENNY BRUCE on 2014 02 07

Taveras the scum is paying in the millions just for his staff. He has been a freeloader off the system all his life. Head start for free. Harvard for free Georgetown for free. I bet he spent alot of time in dupont circle.

Comment #22 by Jackson Teller on 2014 02 07


Keep signing on with those unions!!!!!!!!!


Comment #23 by pearl fanch on 2014 02 07

Katy,a recent article in the Journal disproved your statement.

Comment #24 by mark malachi on 2014 02 10

The liability does not "more than double when you add in OPEB".Read the OPEB reports before you put out lies.

Have you been hitting the sauce again?

Oh,that's right, you can just try to intimidate the next Narr.PO who stops you by bellowing:"Don't you know who I am? I ran for Congress".

Get a life Riley and get a real job,instead of your hedge fund theft machine which you are angling to pump up w/pension money by carrying water for Raimondo.

Comment #25 by mark malachi on 2014 02 10

Mr Malachi the OPEB does in fact double the total liability as i have posted before...Providence unfunded liability for pensions is currently $1.3 billion using Moodys metrics as they notified a year ago. Providence OPEB is between $1.2 and $1.4 billion. totaling $2.5 to $2.7 billion. Not sure what you dont get ...but i am not at all surprised that you cant add or multiply.

Comment #26 by michael riley on 2014 02 10

What is not discussed in this article is demographics.

The State and localities went on a hiring binge in the late 1980's/early 90's. Most state employees, including employees of Providence are now closer to the age of retirement, than the beginning of their careers (mirroring national demographic trends of baby boomers approaching retirement age).

An unfunded pension liability is much more acute when your employees are likely to retire and need to withdrawal benefits sooner rather than later.

Providence does not have until 2040 to fund it's pension system. Providence needs to have a greater funding percentage by 2020. Exacerbating the pension crisis is the arcane laws that allow people to retire in their 40's.

It's hard to know who to believe. I have to say that Taveras loses credibility for his short stint as Mayor, Raimondo as well. We need fewer career politicians with higher aspirations, and more people who are interested in problem solving and honesty.

The future is very uncertain in this state. I don't have any faith that the General Assembly will make decisions for all Rhode Islanders. Wednesday's pension announcement may determine whether I stay or leave this state.

Comment #27 by George Costanza on 2014 02 11

Some people get mean when they drink.

Riley's solution : invest all the pension monies in hedge funds.
End the retirees COLAs, cut their pensions,increase the employees' contributions,have them work 60 yrs before being eligible for retirement.
Keep the money rolling in to the pension funds,decrease the payout to retirees,and give the employees and retirees' earned benefits to the likes of Riley.

Pt Judith Capital made more in fees than Prov. made in returns on their $1M investment.

I know you think that is reasonable,and you want in on the payday.

Bottom line Riley: Figures lie,and liars figure.

You are just one more of the liars figuring a way to get a piece of the pension dollars.

PS I spend time in Narr.in the summer,do me and everyone else a favor,stay off the roads.

Comment #28 by mark malachi on 2014 02 12

Commenting is not available in this channel entry.