Big pensions on the rise in Georgia retirement systems


The number of Georgia retired university employees, teachers and state employees receiving pensions of more than $100,000 a year has more than doubled in the past six years, according to retirement system records.

But state law prevents the public from going online and looking up who any of those retirees are, despite massive taxpayer investment in the retirement funds.

An Atlanta Journal-Constitution analysis showed the number of former employees receiving pensions of more than $100,000 a year from the Teacher Retirement System and Employees Retirees System went from about 1,100 in early 2011 to almost 2,400 as of June.

Most of the tens of thousands of former teachers, university professors and staffers, and state employees don’t receive anywhere near that kind of pension. The average TRS pension, for instance, is less than $40,000 a year.

But some former college presidents, medical college deans and state agency directors are getting pensions of $200,000-$350,000 a year. The two largest retirement systems, the TRS and the ERS, combined were paying out 64 pensions of more than $200,000 a year as of early June.

Buster Evans, the director of the $71 billion Teacher Retirement System, said anecdotal evidence points to a lot of top school and college employees — such as k-12 superintendents and university presidents — retiring in the past decade. Baby  boomers reached retirement age in droves during the period.

But Evans said rising salaries also likely had an impact.

“What you have seen in the education profession, whether it’s a school administrator, a college professor or college president over the past 10 to 15 years are more salaries exceeding $200,000 a year that generate those pensions,” said Evans, a retired school superintendent.

The higher salaries make a difference because it’s a key part of the equation the systems use to determine a retiree’s pension.

The basic formula for system pensions is 2 percent, times the years in the retirement plan, multiplied by the highest average salary over 24 consecutive months. So, for instance, if a university staffer worked in the system for 34 years and earned his highest salary, $200,000 a year, in his final two years on the job, the pension would be about $136,000 a year using the basic formula.

The TRS’ highest pension, as of early June, was $356,000 paid to a former employee of Augusta University, which includes the medical college. The highest ERS pension was $291,000 to a Georgia World Congress Center Authority employee.

The AJC reported Monday that big pay raises — one approved last year and another that was OK’d on Tuesday — for Department of Transportation Commissioner Russell McMurry could boost his pension above $200,000 a year.

Generally, if you know the number of years an employee was in the system and his highest salary over a two-year period, you can estimate the pension.

But state lawmakers in 1997 exempted retirement system investment information and information on retirees’ pensions from the Open Records Act.

Lawmakers approved the change after several years of reports by the AJC, Associated Press and other news organizations on top pension beneficiaries. Some reports about big pensions left lawmakers red-faced.

Most states have similar secrecy clauses, and TRS officials said they weren’t typically giving out pension information before the law was changed.

When the AJC wrote about the law in 2011, top state officials, including then-Attorney General Sam Olens, said they would support making more pension information public. But that didn’t happen.

The salaries of current state, university and school system staffers are publicly available at open.georgia.gov.

But even some lawmakers who have called for changing the retirement systems said they opposed making pension information available to the public.

“We should not disclose the private information of individuals, but taxpayers should know the full scope of our state’s pension liability,” said state Sen. Hunter Hill, R-Atlanta, a Republican gubernatorial candidate who has sponsored legislation to change the retirement benefits new teachers would get.

The systems are getting more attention these days because payments to the TRS in particular are placing a heavy burden on the state budget. Officials say that has crowded out other possible state spending, such as bigger pay raises for employees and teachers.

The pensions are funded with a combination of employee contributions, investment returns and more than $1.5 billion a year in taxpayer funds.

Because of mediocre returns some recent years and a shrunken employee base paying into the system, the state had to pump an extra $223 million into the TRS this year to improve its financial security. The AJC reported in June that the system could need an extra $400 million next year, eating up 40 percent to 45 percent of all new tax revenue.


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