Government pension plans still losing ground

Despite the booming stock market in recent years, most state and local government pension plans fell further behind their retirement obligations in 2016, according to a new study released Thursday.

The typical government pension’s funding level — or amount of savings it holds compared to the retirement obligations it will have to pay out — fell to 72 percent last year from 74 percent in 2015, according to a study by the Center for State and Local Government Excellence in Washington, D.C.

As a general rule of thumb, pension plans are considered adequately funded if their assets equal about 80 percent of their projected long-term retirement obligations.

Local pension plans examined by the center showed mixed results.

Georgia’s two large state pension plans for teachers and state employees had better-than-average funding levels, while Atlanta’s two largest plans were below average.

The funding level at the Teachers Retirement System of Georgia fell significantly during the period, from 79.1 percent to 74.3 percent, according to the study.

At the Employees’ Retirement System of Georgia, funding improved a bit, from 74.1 percent in 2015 to 74.7 percent.

The Atlanta General Employees pension fund, the largest of the city of Atlanta’s three employee pension plans, improved from 57.8 percent to 60.4 percent.

Atlanta’s police pension plan slipped from 78.8 percent to 73.1 percent, according to the center’s report. The third Atlanta plan, for firefighters, wasn’t included in the study.

Several years ago, Atlanta re-tooled its pension plans to cut liabilities and costs after its pension deficit grew to $1.3 billion and annual pension costs ballooned to $125 million — a fifth of the city’s budget.

State and local pensions became a national headache after the Great Recession wrecked many governments’ tax revenues and investment returns at the same time, while aging work forces and growing numbers of retirees put additional strains on the funds.

In its study, the Center for State and Local Government Excellence said pension funding levels have since stabilized after several years of declines.

But most pension plans still lost some ground last year because stock market gains in 2016 weren’t enough to offset rising liabilities, the organization said.

The center said it expects overall funding levels to improve next year with the help of this year’s rising stock market. But some governments still “need to change their approach to setting their annual employer contribution,” the study said, to chip in more money to the pension plans.

“Looking forward, the funded status of plans will depend heavily on both future investment performance and adequate contributions,” the center said.

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