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Sunday, March 13, 2011

Retirement System protects privacy of pensioners in state

At any time, state residents can see the salary of any public employee, from the governor to a mayor to a trash collector.

But once public employees retire, their pensions are considered private information.

Residents can’t fully review how their tax dollars supported the retirements of municipal, county and state employees.

The New Hampshire Retirement System claims that pensioners have a right to privacy, and that releasing how much each individual collects doesn’t benefit the greater public.

Instead, the NHRS provides separate lists of information: one with only the names of pensioners, and another with pension amounts but no matching identifications.

The NHRS takes this stance while it comes under great scrutiny, as lawmakers consider revamping the criteria for receiving a pension. Legislators and others worry that the system doesn’t have enough money to meet all its future obligations, and argue that employees should work longer and retire at a later age to help stave off a collapse.

The NHRS also holds the line on privacy when public employees attract attention to the system by collecting a pension, but continue to work another job funded by taxpayers.

William Quigley III, for instance, has recently been criticized for drawing a pension check while being paid for a 37-hour workweek as Brookline’s police chief. Brookline selectmen and Quigley at first signed a contract describing his job as a full-time position, which violated the NHRS’ policy that a pensioner can work only part time.

Any public attempt to learn information about Quigley’s pension is blocked by the NHRS. It is thus unknown how much Quigley is benefitting by, as his critics would say, “double dipping.”

In fact, with the NHRS providing incomplete data on all pensioners, any thorough and objective analysis of the system isn’t possible. The NHRS’ privacy claim prevents any opportunity for the public to review whether the system can fully support its more than 25,000 pensioners and the more than 50,000 employees currently contributing.

“It’s difficult to decide if you can learn something from data if you can’t learn something from data,” said Charlie Arlinghaus, president of the Josiah Bartlett Center for Public Policy. “In this day and age, people’s first reaction to that is, ‘What are you trying to hide?’ ”

Nearly two years ago, the Josiah Bartlett Center requested and was denied information about the NHRS.

The New Hampshire Union Leader went a step further and had support for its request for pension amounts for 500 people from a Hillsborough County Superior Court ruling, only to have the NHRS hold off providing any information as it pursues an appeal.

“It’s not credible to say someone’s salary is public but the pension is private,” Arlinghaus said. “There is a presumption about all public information. The presumption is everything is equivalent.”

In preparation for this article about shedding light on public government, The Telegraph was rebuffed by the NHRS on several requests for information about pensioners and the amount of money they collect in retirement.

The Telegraph first requested the names and addresses of every individual collecting a pension from the NHRS, with the aim of showing the public where pensioners live. But NHRS officials said they couldn’t infringe on pensioners’ privacy.

The newspaper then requested the names of all pensioners, what jobs they had held and where they had worked. This request intended to show which municipalities and public professions produced the most and fewest pensioners. Again, the NHRS refused to provide information, citing privacy rights.

In its denials, the NHRS cited advice given by the state attorney general and a law firm representing the Retirement System.

In a memo written in 1997, the attorney general pointed to an exemption in the Right-to-Know Law that states the release of confidential or financial information would be an invasion of privacy. When reviewing whether pensioner information would qualify as confidential, the NHRS must weigh privacy against the public interest, the memo said.

Privacy becomes the clear option when considering that pension information includes an individual’s personal and family financial situation, the attorney general advised. In some cases, a pension benefit is affected by a divorce decree or other judicial action, the memo said. Also, many NHRS members are under disability, the memo said.

“It is plain that the privacy concerns of individual retirees in protecting this information from disclosure are significant,” the attorney general advised.

A 2009 memo from the Groom Law Group offered further legal reasoning behind the decision to not provide all data from the pension system.

But the memo also claimed that if the NHRS doesn’t have particular public records available, the Right-to-Know Law doesn’t require the Retirement System to compile such data simply if someone requests it. The NHRS could choose to accommodate those kinds of requests, but again, privacy concerns “could” override compiling particular data, the memo said.

The NHRS did provide The Telegraph, as it has with other media outlets, a list with only the names of individuals receiving a pension.

It also provided a separate list, from information compiled in 2010, that had no names but disclosed every pension amount attached to four broad job categories: police, fire, teacher or other employee.

The list allows the public to see, for instance, that the top annual pension of $135,653 goes to a retired police officer or his or her survivor. Fifteen other pensioners also collect annual pensions of more than $100,000. The lowest pension amount is $41.97.

The NHRS also provided a database that showed the number of pensioners per ZIP code, including those in New Hampshire and several other states. That data revealed that in Greater Nashua, Pelham has the highest number of pensioners per capita, with 47.9.

But by not attaching names to pension amounts, the NHRS prevents the public from determining whether retired public employees receive what would seem to be a justifiable pension, Arlinghaus said.

The Josiah Bartlett Center, media outlets and residents want to review a complete set of data so they can make informed decisions as the state grapples with the solvency of the retirement system, Arlinghaus and others say.

A Pew Research report found New Hampshire’s pension obligations total $7.7 billion while its unfunded ledger is $2.5 billion. The total contributions from employers and employees in 2009 were $189 million. If the system was fully paid for, the revenue should have been $252 million, according to the Pew report.

Citing these studies, Senate Majority Leader Jeb Bradley, R-Wolfeboro, has proposed a bill that would increase the amount of money employees have to contribute and raise the retirement age for public safety employees in an attempt to make the system solvent, he said.

In defense of the system, public employees say a retirement pension is one of the few benefits of working for lower pay than private-sector employees.

A recent USA Today analysis of government seems to support the pay-scale claim: The average New Hampshire public employee salary of $52,181 is $1,876 lower than the average salary of a private-sector worker in the state.

But while the debate over pensions unfolds, the public lacks several key pieces of information from the state Retirement System.

“There are some legitimate questions: How many current state employees are also dragging a pension? How many people got pensions significantly larger than their salaries?” Arlinghaus said.

The only reason the NHRS would want to hide names is “a guy who made $19,000 a year but retires at $39,000,” he said. “My sense is that most pensions are quite sensible, but it’s the outliers who are hidden.”

Albert McKeon can be reached at 594-5832 or amckeon@nashuatelegraph.com.