Cook: Reform and roads less traveled

Cook: Reform and roads less traveled

March 2nd, 2014 by David Cook in Opinion Columns

David Cook

Photo by Ashlee Culverhouse/Times Free Press.

One of the most significant moments in local politics is unfolding smack-dab before us.

As other cities and states mire in arbitration, dysfunction and bad-blood politics, Chattanooga resolved its pension crisis by arriving at some golden road of unanimous agreement, financial sustainability and a good-getting-better sense of trust between politicians and city employees.

"It's unusual," said Andrew Biggs of the American Enterprise Institute. "Usually these issues are much more contentious."

After months of work, an 18-person task force reached consensus, followed by an 8-0 Fire and Police Pension Board vote and an initial 9-0 City Council vote. In the days to come, more and more people will begin to peer over the fence at this, like witnessing some white dove in the national fistfight over pensions. The New York Times has heard. The Wall Street Journal, too. A reporter -- a rather merry one -- from Bloomberg spoke with Mayor Andy Berke at length.

"He was audibly giddy at the discussion," said Lacie Stone, City Hall spokeswoman, "considering he is regularly writing about cities who are really struggling with pension issues."

Too often, efforts at pension reform end in collapse. Arbitration. Unions sue. Politicians wipe out everything. Taxes raised. Taxpayers riot. Detroit happens.

But here?

"What you were able to do in Chattanooga is rare," said Vijay Kapoor, the PFM mediator who was part of the process. "When I tell people the idea about a task force and consensus, most people look at me like I'm crazy."

It began last August. Berke announced plans to reform the police and fire pension plan which, like religion and sex, is an emotionally heavy topic: people's retirements are on the line, along with the city's bank account and taxpayer dollars. Plus, there was ... well, you know.

"Previous bad blood between the Littlefield administration and employees and retirees," said Sean O'Brien, member of the Pension Task Force and president of the Fraternal Order of Police.

Employees suspected Berke of hijacking the fund. City Hall had to lower the high-water mark of distrust. Presentation after conversation finally diffused the emotion into a plain look at the facts.

"The city's contribution in 1999 was 10 percent of the payroll. It was about $5 million," said Kurt Faires, a local attorney who served on the task force. "In 2013, it was 36 percent of the payroll and $14 million ... [the city] went from being 100 percent overfunded to 51 percent funded. The trajectories were totally crazy."

They met, and met. Some meetings lasted hours; one went 13. The room was not full of patsies and complacent yes-men; there were raised voices and arguments and anger and more anger.

"Yes, yes," said O'Brien. "There was some heated, passionate discussion. I think that's why it worked. Everybody was able to air their opinions, their concerns, their disappointments. We had to work through all those things."

In the end, they shook hands on this: employee contributions will increase by 1 percent annually for three years. Retirees' cost-of-living adjustments, which will soon be tied to the Consumer Price Index, dropped from 3 percent to an average of 1.5 percent. The deferred-retirement option plan was preserved, while widows will receive 100 percent of benefits -- up from 60 percent -- if their spouses are killed in the line of duty.

"I don't want to be Kumbaya about this ... but I was real skeptical we'd get to this point," Kapoor said.

Such changes are not unheard of. Approximately 10 states have changed cost-of-living-adjustments, while more than half have increased employee contributions, said Jean-Pierre Aubry, assistant director of state and local research with Boston College's Center for Retirement Research.

"About a half are making changes to core benefits for future employees," he said.

Aubry sees Chattanooga as a counter to the national tale that only through political warfare can pensions be reformed.

"Compared to what you hear in the news every day, there are places making changes through a logical process," he said.

Which is why this matters for an entirely different reason. Their unanimous consensus was a horizontal accomplishment, not a vertical one, handed down on high from some authoritarian power. Various and diverse pockets of the civic body merged together to create a long-term financial solution while also repairing and restoring part of the fragmented relationship between politicians and citizens.

"That's where I give Mayor Berke credit," O'Brien said. "The man has not lied to me once."

Yes, there still exist back-rooms of power more crooked than a witch's nose. And no, these changes didn't make everyone smile. But look at other parts of America. Consider what didn't happen here.

Or did.

Contact David Cook at dcook@timesfreepress.com or 423-757-6329. Follow him on Facebook and Twitter at DavidCookTFP.