Monday, August 22, 2011

Economics:  Faltering Rhode Island City Tests Vows to Pensioners

When the small, beleaguered city of Central Falls, R.I., filed for bankruptcy this month, it sought to cut the pension checks it has been sending its retired police officers, firefighters and other workers by as much as half. All the city promises now is that its retirees, many of whom do not get Social Security, will not have their benefits cut to less than $10,000 a year.

But investors who bought the city's bonds could do much better: Rhode Island recently passed a law intended to make sure that they would be paid in full, even in bankruptcy.

Millions of teachers, police officers, firefighters and other government workers have long believed that their pensions were untouchable, thanks to provisions in state laws and constitutions. But some of those promises are unclear or untested, said Amy B. Monahan, an associate professor at the University of Minnesota law school who has studied the myriad laws protecting public pensions in different states.
In Central Falls, the pension plan for the police and firefighters is projected to run out of money in October. But officials there say short-changing the bondholders will not bring relief. The next time the city needs to borrow money, investors will simply demand more in interest, and they might decide all Rhode Islanders were a bad risk and charge all cities more.

The last thing we want to do is increase borrowing costs for all our cities and towns, and therefore cause tax rates to go up across the state, because one city has fiscal problems, said Robert G. Flanders Jr., the state-appointed receiver for Central Falls, explaining the new state law putting bondholders first in line.

For more, see Faltering Rhode Island City Tests Vows to Pensioners by Mary Williams Walsh and Michael Cooper, August 13, 2011 at NYTimes.com.

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