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Retirees seek pension reform

May 01, 2002|BY STACEY DANZUSO

chambersburg@herald-mail.com

A group of Pennsylvania school retirees hoped to teach legislators a lesson during a demonstration on the steps of the state capitol Tuesday afternoon.

Thousands of retired school and state workers, including about 100 from Franklin County, turned out to oppose the way Pennsylvania awards cost-of-living increases.

The state does not systematically award Cost of Living Adjustments (COLAs) on a regular basis, which hurts some of the oldest retirees, said David Bailey, president of the Franklin County Chapter of the Pennsylvania Association of School Retirees.

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Lewis Purnell, of Mont Alto, Pa., retired in 1980, after spending 35 years in schools in Franklin and Cumberland counties.

"I feel the legislature is not being fair concerning the pension program for school retirees," he said. "I am more fortunate than others because I had a higher salary when retiring. I know many who are just subsisting, just existing."

On April 17, legislators approved the first COLA since 1998. It ranged from a 2 percent to a 25 percent increase that most retirees will not see until next year, said Bailey, who retired as assistant superintendent in Clearfield Area School District, Clearfield County, Pa, in 1995 after 30 years.

While that isn't unappreciated, he said the system needs to be fixed so retirees can count on regular cost-of-living increases that keep pace with inflation.

"I think (legislators) are satisfied with the pittance that they gave," said Purnell, who was a science teacher and later an assistant superintendent for the Waynesboro Area School District.

Earl Bades, who spent 34 years as a technical education teacher for the Greencastle-Antrim School District before retiring in 1993, said the issue is both one of principal and one of basic finances.

"Certainly economically, it's very important," said Bades, who was one of a busload of state and school retirees who left Chambersburg Tuesday morning for Harrisburg.

Franklin County's chapter of the Pennsylvania Association of School Retirees has more than 500 members, while statewide there are more than 40,000. Retirees from Philadelphia to Pittsburgh arrived at the capitol to let legislators know they want regular COLAs and want their pension fund left alone.

"We want to make the public aware and remind legislators we are thankful for the cost-of-living raise just passed, but the system still needs work," Bailey said.

According to a PASR survey, 39 out of 50 states grant annual automatic COLAs. Pennsylvania uses the "ad hoc" system, meaning the state legislature must vote for a COLA.

"Someone who retired 20 years ago, their salaries and benefits with the COLAs have not kept pace with inflation," Bailey said. "It really hurts people who retired years and years ago and pay $500 for prescriptions a month."

Bailey emphasized, however, he doesn't think the money for regular COLAs needs to come out of taxpayers' pockets.

"The system is healthy. If they let it operate as it should, we would not have to come back and ask taxpayers for an additional contribution," he said.

The state retirement account contains $48 billion, Bailey said, and supports itself with investments, although last year's economy resulted in about $5 billion in losses.

That, coupled with a legislative action last year that gave legislators a 50 percent increase in retirement pay, and state and school workers who retire in 2001 and later a 25 percent increase, has cut into funds that could be used for more regular COLAs, Bailey said.

"Our main issue is to let the system work and don't tinker with the formula," he said.

Tuesday's demonstration lasted more than an hour and recognized Rep. Jeff Coy, D-Franklin, for his support of PASR.

Coy said he would continue to bring the pension issue to the forefront of the legislature.

"Their request is very reasonable. The history is that (COLAs) have happened since 1980 about every five years," he said. "They are looking for the legislature to provide them with equitable treatment when it comes to their pension."

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