The Oklahoma Teacher Retirement System, among the most poorly funded government retirement systems in the United States, has spent at least $115,000 on office renovations recenty that were arguably unnecessary, CapitolBeatOK.com has learned.
A request for proposals circulated late last year from the Department of Central Services. The RFP was described as “Remodel and alter 5th floor for the Teacher Retirement System, Oliver Hodge Bldg.OKC”
General contractor J.W. Walker & Company of Oklahoma City began work several weeks ago, witnesses say.
In a recent unsupervised visit to TRS’ Hodge Building headquarters, furniture that appeared in good condition was discarded in a construction trash bin. Eyewitnesses have told CapitolBeatOK the bin has filled up with what appeared to be desks and other furnishings in good condition; they say the bin has been emptied seven to 10 times recently.
A trip to the TRS office revealed a nicely appointed reception area with stylish new décor.
In a conversation with an unnamed employee, the worker admitted, “Yes, and it’s brand new. It’s very nice. They were going to put these nice big gold letters up saying our name ‘The Oklahoma Teacher Retirement System.’ But they found out those letters won’t attach to this so they’re going to have to do something different.”
In addition, attractive desks, dividers, partitions and rich woods now adorn the work area.
TRS secured nicely apportioned furniture and other office materials when it moved to the Hodge building just a few years ago.
Earlier this year, the Pew Center on the States designated Oklahoma as ranking (variously) 2nd or 3rd worst among the nation’s most poorly funded public (government) retirement systems.
Soon after, high-ranking Oklahoma officials took note of the concerns. Tom Spencer, executive director of the Oklahoma Public Employees Retirement System (OPERS) said the report was informative and raised some valid concerns.
However, he said he believes it to be slightly misleading because Oklahoma’s overall pension fund picture looks worse than it is because sound retirement systems are being lumped in with unsound ones.
The TRS’ funded ratio (assets set aside for pension liabilities) was pegged at 66.8 percent at FY 2009’s end.
However, the Illinois-based Institute for Truth in Accounting recently said it had plummeted to 38 % due to the economic downturn compared to five years ago.
IFTA, run by economist Sheila Weinberg, has estimated that Oklahoma’s unfunded debt amounts to $14,600 per family.
Studies by the Foundation for Educational Choice and the Manhattan/Friedman Institute concurred with IFTA’s assessment, issuing a scathing study also placing the system’s funding ratio at 34-38 percent.
At his April revenue briefing, State Treasurer Meacham was diplomatically critical of some of the studies’ assumptions.
In March Meacham, agreed that TRS is, “By far the worst of all our systems in terms of unfunded liability is the teacher retirement system, and in fact it is one of the worst in the entire country. It absolutely does pull down our overall numbers” referring collectively to Oklahoma’s pension funds.
According to the TRS web site, the system had 138,235 members as of June 30, 2005 (84,286 active contributing, 13,080 inactive and 40,879 retired members).
The website mission statement says the TRS’ highest priority is provide adequate benefits to education retirees, protect and maximize the fund’s assets and ensure that it can meet its financial obligations for its all of its members.
Pat McGuigan is editor of CapitolBeatOK.com