Perhaps McMinnville School District made an astute businesslike move by borrowing $16 million to pay off its unfunded liability" debt to the Oregon Public Retirement System. But perhaps, District 40 should have waited for more PERS fallout to settle.
PERS is in chaos and is facing public wrath, a judge's order and legislative action that could replace it with a different program. Change is in the air, which should encourage caution.
PERS calculated that District 40 owed $16 million in unfunded liability for future pension payments to district personnel. By rule, PERS charges 8 percent interest on the presumed debt. So McMinnville sold bonds at 5.6 percent interest, gave the $16 million to PERS and figures to save $4 million over the next 26 years in bond payments compared to anticipated PERS payments.
What happens, we wonder, if legislators determine that PERS must go? What if major changes eliminate unfunded liability to individual districts? Will District 40 be reimbursed?
Many local government bodies took similar actions. Collectively, they have paid off $700 million to PERS, which still has an estimated $15 billion in unfunded liability.
District 40 looked long and hard before taking this action. Financial advisers argued that no matter what remedy is applied to the PERS crisis, this debt would remain. Further, they said any remedy likely will wind up in the courts for years, so waiting for answers could take too long.
Meanwhile, serious efforts to reform PERS were shelved for the holidays, but they take center stage again in January. Marion Circuit Judge Paul Lipscomb has said he will formalize his October order for PERS to move money from workers' accounts to a PERS reserve fund and for PERS to update life expectancy tables used to calculate pensions. Two task forces are preparing recommendations, and legislators are heading to Salem with an earful from their constituents.
Still, government officials underestimate the public resentment toward excessive PERS pension payments and excessive taxpayer costs. PERS financial actions have been so illegitimate that we wonder how District 40 and others could legitimize that "unfunded liability" debt. There should have been more public discussion before the board committed us to 26 years of bonded debt payments.