Mar. 18, 2003 Wearing bright orange life jackets, members of Advocates for the Preservation of the Retirement System gathered in front of the Legislature Building on St. Thomas Tuesday morning in what they said was part of an effort to save a sinking ship — the Government Employees Retirement System.
The group, organized in October 2001 with an eye toward protecting the future of GERS, wants the repeal of legislation which its members say is detrimental to the system. Founding members include Hugo Dennis, three-time senator and one-time Senate president, and Aubrey Lee, a former Labor Department official.
Dennis, wearing a life jacket with a sign which read "Reservation on Retirement System V.I.," proudly displayed petition sheets that he said contain more than 6,000 signatures of government retirees, taxpayers and voters from throughout the territory. The petition calls on the Legislature to repeal two laws that further damage an already fragile retirement system, according to the group.
The APRS, which began collecting petition signatures late in 2001, kept a low profile in 2002 but was looking for media attention Tuesday morning. (See "Retirees organize to save GERS from senators".)
Joining Dennis and Lee were Marie Simmons, the group's public relations officer; volunteer Marion Swan; former educator Ida White; and Vincent Rivera, who created a poster of a sinking ship labeled GERS. They six said they hoped to have better luck with the 25th Legislature than they had with the 24th. "The Senate president wouldn't meet with us," Dennis said, referring to Sen. Almando "Rocky" Liburd. "They didn't take us seriously; the retirement system is in jeopardy."
Dennis said the system is worse now than it was seven months ago. "You do the math," he said. "It pays out $108 million in yearly benefits and it takes in $70 million in contributions. The system is hemorrhaging at the rate of $38 million a year. It can't meet current requirements."
GERS officers held little hope for a bright future last fall when they testified before a Senate committee. (See "GERS facing collapse, senators told again".)
The advocates group wants to repeal:
– Act 6429, which gives early retirement benefits to certain Water and Power Authority hazardous duty employees and increased the cap on senators' pensions to 75 percent of their most recent salaries from the previous 65 percent.
– Act 6430, which empowers the GERS board to borrow money and issue bonds against the retirement system assets. This authority, APRS members say, could undermine the financial stability of the system, jeopardizing its capacity to meet current and future obligations.
Another concern now, Dennis said, is legislation passed in the now-infamous lame duck session of Dec. 23 which raised to three years from what had been 75 days the length of time a retiree can work in a new government job while also drawing retirement benefits. Rivera's sign depicted the GERS as a foundering boat with the message "Double dip will sink the ship."
White said of the 24th Legislature's lawmakers, "I guess they just didn't hear us."
She added: "We don't want to be viewed as a group of older people with nothing better to do with our time. We have one of the best retirement systems in the country, and we want to protect it."
Asked whether they thought senators would vote to repeal their own enhanced retirement benefits, one member of the group said: "It's not for self; it's for everybody."
Dennis emphasized that young government workers should step forward to protect their own futures. He said the group hoped to meet on Tuesday with Senate President David Jones. Jones had not confirmed a meeting, Dennis said, but his office was aware of the petition.
Later in the day, Jones, who was on St. Croix on Tuesday, said by telephone that he appreciated the group's concerns. However, he did not endorse the APRS views concerning GERS' fiscal woes.
It is unlikely the lawmakers would vote to repeal their increased retirement benefits. Jones said. "The senators have the worst retirement benefits of anybody," he said. "Senators still pay more into GERS — 9 percent. Judges have better benefits."
He said what the 24th Legislature, of which he was a member, did was "we simply increased the cap from 65 percent to 75 percent. In no way is that going to bankrupt the retirement system."
As for early retirement pay for hazardous duty WAPA employees, Jones said, "a more appropriate approach might be to give them hazardous duty pay that should compensate them. That would be WAPA's decision."
Jones sponsored the legislation giving the GERS board greater flexibility in managing its investments. "I support the board having flexibility to explore investment vehicles to provide the maximum return," he said. Now, he said, he is working on a strategy to assist the board with its astronomical unfunded liability.
At a Senate meeting last September, Raymond James, then vice chair of the GERS board (and now chair), put that liability at $518 million. But fellow board member Yvonne Bowsky said then that it was closer to $800 million.
APRS has called a mass meeting for petition signers for 10 a.m. Saturday at Addelita Cancryn Junior High School. There, members said, any individuals with a stake in the retirement system will be given a chance to express their views. For further information about the meeting, the petition or the organization, call 777-8267.
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