Pittsburgh’s Pension Games (& A Few Short Takes)

Pittsburgh’s Pension Games (& A Few Short Takes)

Governments have an unflattering habit of putting off until tomorrow what they should do today. Consider the City of Pittsburgh’s ever-struggling municipal pension programs.

Never mind that investment returns for the perennially underfunded programs are expected to remain flat, the city will wait — until 2018 — to make an intellectually honest course correction.

The pension system now is only 56 percent funded, down a percentage point from last year, reminds the Tribune-Review. And the powers that be — Pittsburgh’s Comprehensive Municipal Trust Fund board — decided to delay for another year an important part of the fix.

That would be lowering the projected rate of return, which helps to determine how much cash the city puts into the funds. The higher the projected rate, the less money is contributed.

The city has been projecting that its return on investments will be 7.5 percent annually. But it now estimates that for the year ended Sept. 30, that rate will have been only 5.3 percent. True, as the city notes, that higher rate has been met or exceeded in seven of the last 12 years. Of course, that means it has not been in five of the last 12.

One rationale for not adjusting down the projected return rate is that the city, in the coming year, will exceed state-required payments into the pension system of $49 million by $21 million.

As City Controller Michael Lamb put it, “In some ways, the reduction is meaningless because we’re already doing what the reduction would get us.”

But it’s still whistling past the graveyard of the plans’ systemic faults. It’s no excuse for not adjusting the projected investment return rate. Why not just do things properly as a matter of course?

As Jake Haulk, this institute’s president notes, “Bluntly stated, the city is reluctant to lower the expected return rate because it will mean diverting millions more of its revenue to ensure the financial viability of its pension plans.

“(That’s) money that would have to be taken from other uses or replaced by higher taxes somewhere else,” Haulk reminded. “Behaving responsibly requires a willingness to make hard choices.”

Always kicking cans down the road is not very becoming of city touting that it is in the middle of a new renaissance.

Short takes:

• The tax on the wholesale price of a gallon of gasoline goes up 8 cents per gallon on Jan. 1. That’s thanks to Act 89 of 2013. Proceeds are dedicated to the commonwealth’s highway infrastructure. And it’s a tax that most assuredly will be passed on to consumers at the pump. Combined with the federal tax of 18 cents per gallon, Keystone Staters will be paying 76 cents per gallon in taxes come the first of the year, still the highest in the nation. Which is another disincentive to do business in Pennsylvania.

• Criticism continues to mount over the decision to hand the Pittsburgh Penguins development rights to the old Civic Arena site. One of the more strident critics has been former Pittsburgh City Councilman and state Sen. Jim Ferlo. He once again says that, given repeated delays in progress, he lacks faith that the Penguins can develop the 28-acre tract. Had the marketplace been allowed to function, redevelopment would have been competitively bid — likely in smaller parcels — and development would have been quicker, more natural (dare the word “organic” be used) and more self-sustaining.

• Speaking of redevelopment, Continental Real Estate’s rendering of the newest building it plans to construct on Pittsburgh’s North Shore continues the developer’s record of architectural yawn — uninspiring cookie-cutter designs that, perversely, are a paean to the cookie-cutter Three Rivers Stadium that once sat on the acreage. Of course, this is another manifestation central planning. Do remember that development rights between Heinz Field and PNC Park were handed to the sports teams and a single site developer — Continental — has been filling in the tract, often with significant delays. As with the Civic Arena site, had competitive bidding been employed to redevelop the North Shore tracts, three things likely would have happened — it would have occurred in a more expeditious fashion, it would have been more sustainable and the architecture would have been far more interesting.

• The Post-Gazette reported last week that a lack of money is hampering efforts to fund a program that connects volunteers with those who need their sidewalks and driveways shoveled. But it certainly makes one think about times simpler, better and more genuine when we didn’t need a government program to coordinate doing a good deed.
Colin McNickle is a senior fellow and media specialist at the Allegheny Institute for Public Policy (cmcnickle@alleghenyinstitute.org).