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Published: Friday, 2/10/2012

Some area public officials' pensions could top $4M

BY CLAUDIA BOYD-BARRETT
BLADE STAFF WRITER

A Chicago-based advocacy group released a report Thursday estimating the top lifetime pension amounts due to Toledo and Lucas County public officials at between $3 million and $4 million.

Taxpayers United of America, which bills itself as a national non-partisan organization campaigning for tax accountability and pension reform, published the list, which details wages and pension estimates for 100 local officials and teachers, including Mayor Mike Bell and police Chief Derrick Diggs. The group said it based its calculations on annual wage data, Ohio pension rules, and a life expectancy of 85 years.

According to the report, Mayor Bell would take home a lifetime pension of $4.1 million over 30 years and police Chief Derrick Diggs -- who is listed in his previous position as deputy chief -- would enjoy a $3.3 million lifetime pension. The report also estimates pensions for the heads of several Lucas County social service agencies, city department directors, and police captains. However, many of the officials cited in the report no longer hold the positions stated and some already have retired.

The numbers listed are difficult to verify because government pension amounts in Ohio are not disclosed under public records laws. City spokesman Jen Sorgenfrei said she could not respond to the data in the report, saying that the methodology used was "flawed." She declined to provide alternative numbers, stating the city does not have access to pension information.

However, Taxpayers United vice president Christina Tobin said the group is confident the numbers are quite accurate. Moreover, the difficulty in verifying them points to the need for greater transparency in Ohio's public pension system, she argued.

The organization is compiling similar reports on public pensions across Ohio and seven other Midwestern states. Ms. Tobin said the numbers show the current pension system is unsustainable and needs to be reformed. As it stands, the system places an unwieldy burden on government budgets and is unfair to taxpayers, she said.

"It's the same pattern everywhere. The average household income is peanuts. Pension payouts are in the millions," Ms. Tobin said. "I don't think taxpayers will be too thrilled with the idea with the mayor making that sort of money."

Adam Schwiebert, a research fellow at the conservative Buckeye Institute in Columbus, which also compiles data on public salaries and pensions, said the Taxpayers United numbers are "estimates at best." He said the group relied on several assumptions, such as life expectancy and length of employment, which can vary considerably. But he echoed Ms. Tobin's concern with the public pension system, saying it represents a $66 billion "unfunded liability." His group advocates for a system closer in line with the private sector, where workers pay into plans such as a 401(k), he said.

"This is a tremendous fiscal issue facing the state and an issue of fairness," he said. "We think Ohio should be forward-thinking in funding its public retirement plans."

Contact Claudia Boyd-Barrett at: cbarrett@theblade.com or 419-724-6272



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