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Tuesday, February 7, 2023


Nov. 27, 2001 – A group of retired government workers is fed up with the 24th Legislature's actions that they say are bankrupting the retirement system — and has vowed to do something about it.
"The 24th Legislature continues to violate the public trust by passing legislation for special classes of workers without regard to the overall negative impact these special dispensations will have on the system," Hugo Dennis, chair of the newly formed Advocates for Preservation of the Retirement System, said at a press conference Tuesday.
The group was formed in October after another retiree suggested Dennis bite the bullet and take action after Dennis had written a letter to the news media expressing outrage at the Senate's actions regarding the Government Employees Retirement System. After brief consideration, Dennis concurred.
GERS "is currently underfunded by more than a half billion dollars, and is currently losing about $30 million each year," Dennis said Tuesday. The system is at risk, he said, because of short-sighted measures senators have taken, especially recent overrides of two of Gov. Charles W. Turnbull's vetoes.
One gives early retirement benefits to certain Water and Power Authority hazardous duty employees; the other increases the cap on senators' pensions to 75 percent of their most recent salaries, up from the current 65 percent.
On Tuesday the new group launched a petition drive calling on the Legislature to repeal these two bills as an initial step in its campaign for protection of the GERS system. The drive, targeting 6,000 signatures, will continue through January.
On a Saturday morning in late January, Dennis said, the group will hold a public meeting with the GERS staff. He said he anticipates 600 participants. "We want to be the largest assembly of government workers ever held," he said. "We want the public to know we have retired from government employment, but not from life — our brains, eyes and ears are still functioning."
Dennis, a three-term senator and president of the 15th Legislature, said he thinks most retirees don't understand the serious economic situation GERS is in. "The Legislature's role is to properly fund the statutory mandate which they have enacted into law," he said. "Over the past 10 years, the Legislature has enacted more than 500 unfunded mandates to pay enhanced benefits without appropriate funding. Such irresponsible leadership … hastens the ultimate bankruptcy of the system."
Appearing with Dennis at the press conference in the American Legion Hall in Sub Base on St. Thomas were 11 other APRS members who with him serve on the group's steering committee. They detailed plans for the drive to repeal the recent legislative overrides.
"The politicians will be counting, so let us show them our numbers," Dennis said. "That is the only thing they respect." He said the group is strictly political — "If you're not with us, you're against us" — and it has allies in civic and labor groups, including the Association of Concerned Native Virgin Islanders, the Central Labor Council, and American Legion Post 90.
"The American Association of Retired Persons is behind us," Dennis, an AARP representative, added, "but AARP doesn't take official political positions."
Cass Connell, the group's secretary and a retired nurse, said, "We've had four meetings already with 25 to 30 different people at each meeting. Each of those people will tell 10 others who, in turn, will tell another 10. It will spread."
Connell said she had "palpitations of the heart" after a meeting APRS had with the GERs board. "People don't realize what shape the system is in," she said. "It was never structured for early retirement benefits. There's a billion dollars, yes, but that's in investments, not cash. People hear that amount and they don't understand."
"I worked for 35 years, and I expect to live another 30," Connell continued, "and I don't want five years from now to suddenly get a letter saying there's no funds in the system. It needs to change — it wasn't set up for all these people on early retirement who haven't contributed as much to the system as they are taking out."
At a Senate meeting earlier this year, GERS staff attorney Alphonso Nibbs said that if contributions to the system are not increased, GERS will not be able to pay all of its retirees. He said the system currently pays out $98 million a year but collects only $63 million in contributions. Dennis noted there is a $30 million annual deficit in retiree payroll.
Adding to the burdens on the system is the effect of the Public Employee Voluntary Separation Act of 2000, which was to be funded by $15 million from the government's $300 million bond issue. Of the 800 government workers eligible to retire under the act, 256 did so. But Nibbs said the government hasn't paid its obligation. GERS has taken the government to court over the non-payment; the case has not yet been heard.
Retired educator Marie Simmons, APRS press relations representative, said, "We're going to be unconventional. You'll see." Pressed for an example, she said, "How about a weenie roast where we roast the senators? We could put each senator's name on the wrappers with a hypoallergenic pen." Simmons said rallies, marches and many more meetings are planned.
Aubrey Lee, who co-chairs the group, was not able to attend the meeting.

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