POSTED ON AUGUST 1, 2012:
Pension Tension. Michael Rider said he didn't know about Mayor Dewey Bartlett's plan for a pension review committee until the day Bartlett notified local media of the announcement.
As president of the local city workers union, Rider called it "a little disturbing" that the union was kept in the dark. What's more, no union officials were named to the committee -- but Rider said he expects that to change.
"We'll probably sit down and talk with them first. If that doesn't work, then we'll file a grievance," said Rider, adding, "I can 100 percent say yes, we should be on that committee."
It remains to be seen if a lack of an invite will truly put a strain on relations between the city and the approximately 2,000 union members whose pension is managed by the city. After all, under Bartlett's watch, the city has upped its contribution to the Municipal Employees Retirement Program to 10 percent. Employees also contribute funds for their retirement, with a 6 percent contribution.
For his part, Bartlett said in a statement that Rider will be welcomed into what the committee does, though he stopped short of saying the union will have a seat on the committee.
"I welcome Mr. Rider's input. He and others will have an opportunity to represent their viewpoints to the committee. I have encouraged the committee to hear from all who are affected by City pension and other post-employment benefit reform," Bartlett said in a statement to UTW.
So what will the committee do? The eight-person group can be described as a mix of number-crunchers and government-types. Finance professionals include Tom Cummins, actuary with Thomas E. Cummins Actuary, and Phil Frohlich, founder and owner of Prescott Group Capital Management; notable government or policy pros are Russell Gale, Broken Arrow's city manager, and Jonathan Small of the Oklahoma Council of Public Affairs, a conservative think tank that describes The Heritage Foundation as its model.
In announcing the formation of the group July 19, the city outlined the group's main goals: "Avoid the risk of a massive tax hike to pay pension benefits for citizens; reduce the City of Tulsa's unfunded pension liability; avoid budget cuts to other services to pay for unfunded liabilities; propose reforms that establish a stable, long-term pension model for Oklahoma; make possible recommendations to the State legislature, and create a sustainable and fiscally responsible system."
The city's pension currently is funded at 76.3 percent of liabilities. Rider sees reason for concern that talk of making the pension sustainable could somehow mean a worse deal for workers.
"There is no crisis. There are some changes that maybe could be made, but it's a good plan. It's worked for many, many years and there's no reason that it can't continue to work," Rider said.
Tulsa Wage Increase Tops Nation. In a time when wages decreased in most urban areas, Tulsa County topped the nation in growth with an 8.6 percent increase in weekly wages, according to federal economists.
The average Tulsa County worker earned $963 weekly based on data collected during the final three months of last year, up from the average weekly wage of $887 earned by workers from the same time period in 2010.
An unusual event in Tulsa County pushed up wages, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, which published the most recent quarterly data in June.
"An acquisition within professional and business services resulted in large payouts in the fourth quarter of 2011, which significantly boosted the county's average weekly wage," the BLS noted in a statment.
The BLS doesn't disclose company-specific data, and Bob Ball, economist for the Tulsa Metro Chamber, could not shed light on the mystery.
"We tried to figure out who the acquisition might have been, and we couldn't figure that out," Ball said.
He said oil and gas have "a whole lot to do with keeping the wages up." He also credited increased local manufacturing activity with helping bump up pay for workers.
While manufacturing companies produce a diverse range of goods, "much of our manufacturing is in oil and gas machinery and equipment," Ball said.
Whatever the reason, Tulsa was one of only 36 counties to see wages rise in the final three months of the year compared to the same time period in 2010. Such widespread declines are rare; the BLS noted that the final three months of last year marked only the fifth time since 1978 that the U.S. average weekly wage declined.
At the end of the year, Tulsa County's wages were higher than those in Oklahoma County, which had average weekly wages of $902.
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