The city of Cincinnati and a union representing city workers are currently negotiating an out-of-court settlement for a lawsuit involving the city's pension program.
The American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees (AFSCME) claimed in a 2011 lawsuit that the city government isn’t meeting funding requirements. A Hamilton County Court of Common Pleas motion filed Jan. 4 and accepted Jan. 23 gives the city and AFSCME until April to settle the case out of court.
By law, Cincinnati is required to heed to the Cincinnati Retirement System (CRS) Board of Trustees when setting the percent of payroll the city must contribute to retirees. But the AFSCME lawsuit argues the city hasn’t been making contributions dictated by the board.
The lawsuit, which dates back to June 2011, cites minutes from a CRS Board of Trustees meeting on July 20, 2010 to show the board accepted a report from Cavanaugh Macdonald Consulting, LLC. The report asked the city to contribute 46.22 percent of payroll to retiree benefits — 12.32 percent to retiree health benefits and 33.9 percent to other CRS benefits — during the 2011 fiscal year.
Instead, the city biennial budget for 2011 and 2012 established a contribution rate of 17 percent — way below the recommended sum.
The AFSCME lawsuit alleges the low contributions reflect a “longstanding pattern” from city government. It points to a 2002 report from the CRS Board of Trustees that found the city was not meeting requirements set by the board then, either.
The lawsuit asks for a court mandate requiring city government to find out how much it needs to contribute, establish a mechanism for collecting the amounts required and appropriate and contribute the required amounts.
City Solicitor John Curp says the debate is between long-term and short-term interests. On AFSCME’s side, the union wants to get as much from payroll contributions as possible for represented retirees, even if it means a short-term economic and budget shock for the city. On the city’s side, City Council is more interested in meeting long-term requirements for the pension fund, instead of keeping up with shifting annual numbers that could negatively impact the city economy and budget.
City government’s approach attempts to balance short-term and long-term needs with a long-term goal. It means the city pension is underfunded during some years, particularly when the economy is in a bad state. But it keeps rates steady, letting the city avoid sudden funding changes that would require spending cuts or tax hikes to keep the budget balanced.
By adopting a large short-term contribution rate, the city would likely hurt its budget in ways that would negatively affect city employees represented by AFSCME. If the city was forced to contribute 46.22 percent of payroll to CRS — up from 17 percent — it would probably be forced to cut spending elsewhere, which would lead to layoffs.
This story was updated on Jan. 25 at 12:40 p.m. to reflect comments from City Solicitor John Curp.