By STEVEN NALLEY
Current and former public service workers in Starkville are sharing in statewide concerns about a commission assigned to study Mississippi’s Public Employees’ Retirement System (PERS) and recommend changes.
Gov. Haley Barbour announced the commission’s creation Aug. 9 and held a public hearing on the commission Sept. 14 in Jackson. After listening to comments from 15 of the attendees at the hearing, commission Chairman George Schloegel said some areas of PERS already identified as requiring study include the cost-of-living adjustment (COLA) and the 8 percent rate of return.
Sam Bounds, executive director of the Mississippi Association of Superintendents, said PERS is one of the main attractions to public education professions in the state, especially since Mississippi teachers have not received a raise in six years. He said he does not want to see changes to PERS, especially its COLA.
“IF you take the last 81 years of inflation in MIssissippi, inflation has averaged 3.1 percent,” Bounds said. “The COLA in PERS today is at 3 percent. There’s nothing exorbitant about that. With all this scrutiny into our retirement system, I’m afraid it’s going to result in some unwarranted fear that our retirement system is not sound.”
The creation of the PERS study commission follows on the heels of other, prior adjustments to the program by legislators. These include raising employee contributions from 7.25 percent of salary to 9 percent and raising retirement eligibility from 25 years of service to 30.
David Lindley, Starkville police chief, said these changes are already “significant and radical,” and any future changes would damage the security of future state employees’ retirement.
“It is unnecessary, unwise and a mystery to me why this has become such a point of obsession with some of our government leaders,” Lindley said. “Any unnecessary changes at all would lead to significant problems in securing career employees. It is a recipe for disaster, and I hope it is defeated.”
In a press release, Pat Robertson, PERS executive director, said it is still uncertain exactly which changes the commission will recommend. Lindley said the commission’s process needs more transparency.
“The way that this whole process has been conducted so far, even to the point where they’re now saying that they won’t announce the results until after the election, reeks of back-door, smoke-filled room politics as usual,” Lindley said. “It should be a glass house and open to all to have input. It is not and has not been, and that is wrong.”
Clyde Williams, a retired MSU English professor, was a candidate for the PERS board in 2006, and he, too, said greater transparency is needed. He said 50 percent of PERS’ budget comes from investments, and information about those investments would clarify the financial issues PERS faces.
“A lot of retirement systems are in trouble; they’ve put money into real estate mortgage vehicles,” Williams said. “If (PERS) needed to be studied, it needed to be studied a really long time ago.”