Bill top­ping $5.21 bil­lion trend­ing into dan­ger zone

Boston Herald - - NEWS - By JOE DWINELL

Tens of thou­sands of state pen­sions of up to $350,000 a year are strain­ing the re­tire­ment sys­tem, forc­ing the Leg­is­la­ture to ask tax­pay­ers for more cash to keep the sys­tem afloat.

A stag­ger­ing 1,000-plus re­tirees earned $100,000 or more in pen­sion pay last year — with for­mer troop­ers, judges, provosts and school su­per­in­ten­dents lead­ing the way — with the to­tal pen­sion-fund li­a­bil­ity com­ing in at a bud­get-bust­ing $5.21 bil­lion.

It’s a trend one watch­dog said is head­ing into the dan­ger zone.

“These pen­sions are putting an enor­mous bur­den on the state bud­get,” said Greg Sul­li­van, a for­mer state in­spec­tor gen­eral now with the Pi­o­neer In­sti­tute. “It’s tak­ing away money we need for roads, bridges and to fix the MBTA.”

Sul­li­van said the cost of foot­ing the bill for these golden years has “sky­rock­eted” — forc­ing the state Leg­is­la­ture to pump $2.4 bil­lion into that bud­get in 2018. He warned that the tab for this li­a­bil­ity will climb to $11 bil­lion by 2033.

“This is such a se­ri­ous prob­lem,” Sul­li­van added, “it’s be­come al­most un­re­al­is­tic.” The 124,000-plus pen­sion pay­outs stud­ied by the Her­ald show for­mer provosts, pro­fes­sors, pros­e­cu­tors, teach­ers, so­cial work­ers, toll col­lec­tors and prison guards col­lect­ing hefty checks:

Two for­mer UMass Med­i­cal ju­nior chan­cel­lors pulled down $347,000 and $338,000, re­spec­tively, last year. Both re­tired re­cently.

Ten re­tirees were close be­hind at more than $200,000 each last year, in­clud­ing Wil­liam “Billy” Bul­ger, the brother of slain Southie mob­ster James “Whitey” Bul­ger. The for­mer UMass pres­i­dent and one­time state Se­nate pres­i­dent took home $201,656 last year.

One man who re­tired in 1953 from “state ser­vice” was listed as col­lect­ing $12,200 last year. Oth­ers left state work in the 1960s, ’70s and ’80s and are still col­lect­ing checks.

Most re­tired pub­lic school teach­ers were paid about $50,000 last year, but the top earner in this cat­e­gory chalked up $149,000.

School su­per­in­ten­dents and teach­ers from Athol to Wren­tham had an­nual pen­sions of $209,000 to $400. (That was a teacher on Nan­tucket.)

Re­tired toll col­lec­tors, who had their jobs elim­i­nated due to elec­tronic tolling, clocked in at $61,000 and $56,000 a year, on the high side, to $9,959 in the slow lane.

Sul­li­van, who col­lects a $91,000 an­nual pen­sion for his stint as an in­spec­tor gen­eral, said the cul­prit is the state’s grow­ing pay­roll.

As the Her­ald re­ported this week, the state pay­roll for 2018 was $7.74 bil­lion. That fig­ure has climbed 23 per­cent over the past five years. Yet the me­dian house­hold in­come for Mas­sachusetts res­i­dents has gone up only 15 per­cent to $73,227 over the same pe­riod. Gov. Char­lie Baker’s ad­min­is­tra­tion said a time­line has been set to get the pen­sion sys­tem un­der con­trol, but it will take years.

“The Baker-Polito Ad­min­is­tra­tion has made progress to pay down the com­mon­wealth’s long-term obli­ga­tions like the un­funded pen­sion li­a­bil­ity. Un­der the current statu­tory fund­ing sched­ule the fi­nal amor­ti­za­tion pay­ment will be made in fis­cal 2036, four years be­fore the statu­tory re­quire­ment,” said Julie Me­he­gan, spokes­woman for the Ex­ec­u­tive Of­fice for Ad­min­is­tra­tion and Fi­nance.

Un­til then, re­tired pa­role of­fi­cers, jail guards, li­brar­i­ans, chauf­feurs and jan­i­tors will need the Leg­is­la­ture to keep the pay­ments com­ing.

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