Deadline or not, officials vow diligence

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City Council members and Mayor Luke Ravenstahl signaled again Tuesday that they'll continue working to get a handle on pension costs, even if the city misses a Dec. 31 deadline for avoiding state takeover of the pension fund.

Mr. Ravenstahl and council want to avoid a takeover because of the projected costs, financial and otherwise: the city's annual pension payments, about $56 million this year, would increase to $86 million in 2013 and peak at $160 million around 2030 under the state's 30-year timetable for getting the pension fund to 100 percent solvency.

Mr. Ravenstahl said he's not sure how the financially strapped city would make the payments but fears it would require tax hikes, service cuts or both.

Councilman Ricky Burgess said he fears those cuts would have a disproportionate impact on already-vulnerable communities. He envisions less money to clear overgrown lots and demolish the abandoned houses that invite crime.

Other council members say that even if a takeover is set in motion Dec. 31, they have a few years to right the fund before the higher payments begin in 2013.

Council members worked during the Christmas weekend and until 11:30 p.m. Monday working on the proposal introduced Tuesday. They proposed dedicating 30 years of parking rate increases to the pension fund, an infusion of value, if not cash, that would forestall a takeover.

After learning that Mr. Ravenstahl dismissed the proposal as "severely, if not critically, flawed," council members passed a motion compelling his appearance at a meeting today, hoping to jump-start a compromise by year's end. If that conversation doesn't go anywhere, some council members already have hinted at the next steps, even if some of those steps can't be accomplished until next year.

Told that parking authority debt could hinder use of parking revenue for the pension fund, council President Darlene Harris suggested finding the $105 million or so to eliminate the debt.

"We could find that money," she said.

If the parking authority won't cooperate on a pension bailout, Councilman Patrick Dowd said, council could find a way to bring that government entity under the city's control.

Or, he said, council can consider earmarking the Local Services Tax, expected to bring in about $13.3 million in 2011, to the pension fund. Right now, that money flows into the general fund.

Mr. Ravenstahl, too, has cited a need to continue working on pension issues regardless of whether a takeover occurs. On Tuesday, the Democratic mayor said he hopes that the Legislature, under Republican control next year, will pursue pension reform, such as allowing municipalities to replace defined benefit plans with defined contribution plans.

"The system needs overhauled entirely," he said.


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