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Opinion Airing Out Pension System Problems

Who would have thought that you could qualify for a public pension and not be a public employee?

Some goings-on during the final days of this year's regular session of the North Carolina legislature exposed that fact, although certainly a few state government insiders were aware of it.

A provision appeared in a piece of legislation that would have added the employees of the N.C. Sheriff's Association to the state's Local Government Retirement System, the pension fund that pays retirement benefits to local government workers.

The employees of the association aren't exactly government workers. They lobby on issues important to the 100 sheriff departments around the state. The association's budget comes from the dues paid by those departments, state and federal grants, and fund-raising.

The legislation got bogged down when some folks began wondering whether adding the handful of workers was a good idea with state finances in such tough shape. Critics of the proposal also questioned whether it might create federal tax-status problems for the pension fund.

Those pushing the idea responded that, if approved, association employees wouldn't be unique.

The employees of the N.C. League of Municipalities and the N.C. Association of County Commissioners, which serve a similar function for municipal and county government, have been part of the pension system for decades.

Until the 1980s, the employees of the N.C. Association of Educators, the State Employees Association of North Carolina and the N.C. School Boards Association were included in either the state or local government pension systems.

The News & Observer of Raleigh, in a piece by reporter Dan Kane, raised the issue of allowing the local government lobbying groups inclusion in the taxpayer-funded pension systems while pointing out that their workers aren't treated like government workers in another way: Their salaries aren't public.

The salary information is important because public pensioners' benefits are based on the highest four consecutive years of pay. Some of the more generous payouts have received a little attention lately.

Kane had previously reported on the head of a local mental health agency who managed to receive annual pension payments of $211,373. The fellow had first retired, receiving a juicy $145,000-a-year pension payment, then went back to work on a contract basis with original employer while receiving pay and perks that eventually reached $319,000.

Whether the local government groups should be included in the taxpayer-funded pension plans is debatable.

What isn't debatable is that current pension fund rules allow for and even encourage abuse.

Too often, the politically connected manage to grab highpaying state jobs, or finagle fat pay raises, as they near retirement, all with the idea of boosting their pension payments.

Republicans gained their historic majorities in the North Carolina General Assembly by saying that they would bring more accountability to government.

Reworking the retirement system formula to discourage abuse while ensuring fair benefits would be in keeping with that pledge. Requiring transparency of all the system's beneficiaries would do the same.

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