Wednesday, August 02, 2000

City may improve retiree benefits

By Robert Anglen
The Cincinnati Enquirer

        Isabell Schwarberg says one of the last things city of Cincinnati employees do before retiring is visit the dentist and “get our teeth fixed.”

        That's because retirement packages don't include dental and vision benefits.

        But today, City Council will likely vote to add the coverage at a cost of $3.1 million a year.

        While that has Ms. Schwarberg smiling wide, the cost has others frowning.

        “It's easy to pretend there's free money out there,” Councilman Pat DeWine said during Tuesday's Finance Committee meeting.

        He said taxpayers — who have no connection to the 4,300 members of the city's retirement system and their families — will have to pick up the tab for these extra benefits.

        “That's just hogwash,” Councilman Todd Portune said. “This is not new funding or risking the general fund.”

        The money is coming out of the $2.6 billion retirement fund, which the city contributed $13 million to last year.

        City Finance Director Tim Riordan said the retirement fund has become fat through investments, but cautioned that a downturn could result in the city having to pay for the benefits out of its contribution.

        Rather than paying for the benefits, he said, officials should approve a plan giving employees the option of buying them.

        The majority of council members Tuesday said the coverage isn't an option for those living on fixed incomes — and they said public employees should be rewarded for their service.

        “Well over two-thirds of our retirees are getting less than $24,000 a year,” Mayor Charlie Luken said, referring to a chart showing 3,532 retirees receive $500 to $2,000 a month.

        “I'm not sheepish on this one at all,” he said. “What I am is surprised that members of council would (say) that taxpayers are getting their pockets picked.”

        Councilman Paul Booth called vision and dental coverage a necessity.

        “When it comes to quality of life issues, we nickel and dime these issues,” he said. “When it comes to brick and mortar, we open up the coffer.”

        What it comes down to is that some retired city employees can't see well enough to read the paper and are limited to soft-food diets, retirement board member Mike Rachford said.

        Ms. Schwarberg agreed, saying “we all fall down” because of vision problems. She and several of the employees applauding in council chambers Tuesday wore glasses.


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