The Government Employees Retirement System’s board of trustees met Thursday on St. Croix and more than half of the meeting was spent dealing with several individuals who retired months ago, but had not yet received their first annuity payment.
There were no reports from the chairman, Wilbur Callender, or from the committees. However, GERS Executive Director Austin Nibbs did talk about some of the reasons the system is unable to pay annuities.
There are 97 recent retirees that haven’t received their first check, he said, and until the system received $660,000 from the government last week, there was only $1,600 left in the account. Another $5 million allotment is expected by summer, he said.
The Gov. Juan Luis Hospital owes more than $5 million that has been adding up since February 2013 but is currently making employer contributions. Nibbs said there have been discussions about setting up an installment plan for the health care facility to pay back contributions.
Of more than 600 employees, 400 are under contract and do not pay into the retirement system, Nibbs said, adding that needs to be “corrected.”
At the direction of the board, GERS legal counsel is exploring the possibility of a lawsuit if the hospital is found to have used funds for operations instead of paying GERS, he said.
Nibbs also talked about property owned or managed by GERS and said the first floor of the St. Croix office has been rented out and is being renovated. A letter was sent to West Indies Corp. Inc. to determine when payments for Havensight Mall will be made. Currently $1.5 million is owed and there are 10 vacancies at the mall, he said.
There have been several parties inquiring about buying Carambola Resort, according to Nibbs, and he asked if a board committee would put together information for prospective buyers. Attorney Jeffrey Moorehead has been retained to explore obtaining a casino license for the St. Croix resort, he said.
The treasurer’s report read at the meeting stated income for March 2015 was $9.39 million, up from $8.27 million in March 2014. Disbursements increased to $26.02 in March 2015 over $23.86 in 2014. Annuity payments were up from $19.51 to $20.18 in March this year.
Retired Judge Edgar Ross pointed out that contributions have increased since the board approved a 3 percent increase for employees and employers.
“The bleeding, it hasn’t stopped and it isn’t stagnant, but we’re not bleeding as much each month,” Ross said.
Nibbs added that there is an increase in retirees but not in the number of government workers paying into the system.
The first few minutes of each GERS board meeting are devoted to comments from retired government employees. On Thursday, five told their stories of late payments, possible foreclosure on their homes and the inability to get information from the government agencies they worked for or from the retirement system.
Juan Encarnacion, retired from V.I. government work twice, most recently in August 2014. Since then he said he has received none of his retirement savings and his house is under threat of foreclosure and his vehicle will be repossessed soon. Encarnacion said he can only afford to make half payments with his Social Security check and depends on his son to help with utilities.
He said telephone calls to the St. Thomas and St. Croix offices have been unproductive.
“I’m a desperate man,” Encarnacion said. “I did everything the system asked me to do.”
Nibbs told Encarnacion that after calling the appropriate staff person, there were problems because he had retired twice and “the system doesn’t recognize” retirement of a tier one and tier two employees. He also told the retiree there would have not been enough money to pay him until a $600,000 government allotment was received on March 15.
Douglas Canton worked for the V.I. Legislature, the Department of Labor and the V.I. Water and Power Authority before retiring 14 months ago. He said he expected to wait three months before receiving a check and planned for a year without pay – just in case.
Not only has he received no money, Canton said he cannot even determine how much each agency has paid into or owes the retirement system in employer contributions.
Retirees cannot receive annuities unless employer and employee contributions have been made. Canton said he has called numerous numbers and times without success.
“You are taking the person – your client – your best friend – and you’re not empowering him with information,” Canton said.
Several retirees agreed and with pleading tones said GERS didn’t communicate well and didn’t provide enough information and statements.
Librarian Pat Oliver said she won’t retire until she finds out if her employer contributions have been made and how much her retirement income will be. She asked the trustees Thursday to allow potential retirees pose questions and make comments at the meetings.
Lawrence Lewis said he receives monthly reports from his stateside retirement program and he can watch for errors. He asked that GERS send quarterly reports online at least.
“I can query an error. I can’t query ignorance,” he said.
Staff and trustees pointed out there is a website, newsletter, Facebook page and three radio shows that GERS uses to disperse information.
All seven trustees attended the meeting: Callender, Ross, Carol Callwood, Vincent Liger, Desmond Maynard, Michael McDonald and Leona Smith.