In Rhode Island "there are 150 different pension plans for public workers."

Kernan "Kerry" King on Saturday, August 21st, 2010 in an interview on WPRI-TV's "Newsmakers

King says Rhode Island's public employees have 150 different pension plans

Kernan "Kerry" King, the Republican candidate for general treasurer, believes the public employee pension system is too complicated.

"In Rhode Island today, our little state, there are 150 different pension plans for public workers. That's absolutely crazy," he said during an appearance on Newsmakers. "We need to have one plan for all workers, whether you're a judge, whether you're a state trooper, whether you work for the city of Warwick as a maintenance person. One plan should fit every single person."

One hundred fifty is a lot of pension plans, even for a state with 39 cities and towns.

So we first checked with the general treasurer's office, which handles the state-run programs.

Chief of Staff Mark A. Dingley said the state has four such programs and he sent us the latest audit reports for all of them.

Most state employees and teachers are covered by the Employees' Retirement System of Rhode Island (ERSRI). The state employees portion of that system was funded at 59 percent for 24,661 employees and retirees as of June 30, 2009, the most recent figures available. The teachers portion was funded at 58.1 percent for 25,904 employees and retirees. Ideally, both should be at 100 percent.

Then there's the State Police Retirement Benefits Trust, which covered 182 people as of June 30, 2009. It has 79.8 percent of the money it should have to be fully funded, according to last year's actuarial valuation.

Third is the Judicial Retirement Benefits Trust for the state's judges and retired judges. There were 55 in June 2009. The plan is funded at 88.3 percent.

Fourth is the state-run Municipal Employees' Retirement System (MERS) which covers 109 pension programs within various cities, towns or region. As of last year, it covered 7,952 employees and 4,389 retirees. All 109 programs are funded separately to various degrees by their municipality. Thirty six are funded at 100 percent or higher, and 10 have less than 70 percent of the money they should have.

The four programs actually represent 113 different named pension plans, if you count the program for teachers and other state employees as two separate ones. Dingley said all 113 have very similar provisions.

On the state level, there are five different designs of pension plans. 

But wait, there's more.

There are 36 municipal pension programs in 24 communities that are administered by their respective cities and towns. "They would all have different designs," said Dingley.

For information on them, we went to the Office of the Auditor General and found its March 2010 report assessing their health. Nearly two thirds of those plans are considered at risk because they don't have enough money to cover projected expenses.

Only 11 have at least 70 percent of the funding they need and 19 are funded below the 50 percent level. "Some are so small they only cover one or two people," Dingley said.

That brings the total to 149, or 148 if you include the state teachers and state employees plans as one.

Dingley said he's not sure how easy it would be to combine them, as King is recommending. The ones that cover police and fire "are designed very differently because of the hazardous nature of the work. You don't want to see a 60-year-old fireman or policeman still working, because they can't go up the ladder and carry someone down, or they're not effective against young criminals, etc.

"Likewise for judges, who tend to be appointed later in their careers, so those designs take that career track into account. Those have traditionally been different," said Dingley. "But aside from that, there is a strong argument to be made that the rest should have a uniform design."

The bigger question, given how poorly-funded some of the plans are, "is who makes up the huge deficits," Dingley said.

Ultimately, King's count of the number of public pension plans in Rhode Island isn't perfect, but it's close enough for us, so we rate his statement as True.