Developing a thoughtful public pension funding policy

A thoughtful pension funding policy provides the best way for public sector employers to keep their pension promises. The funding policy provides discipline to address unfunded pension liabilities, while respecting the many current demands for budget dollars.

The League of Arizona Cities and Towns recently sponsored a study by a special Task Force to identify areas for improvement and develop reform recommendations. The final recommendation is “Create a pension funding policy.” The Task Force emphasized that Arizona cities and counties “have a fiduciary responsibility to ensure (the) plan has sufficient financial resources to provide the benefits earned ….”

The pension funding policy is the best (and maybe the only) way for plan sponsors to meet their fiduciary duty to keep the pension promise. But developing a pension funding policy is not easy. It requires projecting unfunded pension liabilities beyond what is usually shown in existing actuarial reports. It also requires a delicate balancing of all of the various constituent interests over a variety of time frames.

The easy way out has always been to ignore the problem and leave it to someone else in the future. But a prudent few will openly address the political and budget issues inherent in developing a funding policy that keeps the pension promise.

One city recently chose to invest the time and resources to develop a pension funding policy. After years of declining funded ratios and increasing contributions, the city Finance Officer championed a study that involved the City Commission, the pension fund members, the actuary and the investment advisor. The resulting pension funding policy provided for an increase in employer and employee payroll contributions – and also provided for a third stream of contributions unrelated to payroll: a pension sustainability contribution.

We encourage every public sector plan sponsor to develop a pension funding policy. And we applaud the prudent finance officers who actually begin the process to keep their pension promises.

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