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‘Don’t lump us in’ — Ohio police reject GOP’s pension system overhaul due to teachers’ controversy

Lawmakers proposed consolidation of five pension funds
Posted at 8:22 PM, Jul 09, 2024

COLUMBUS, Ohio — Ohio police officers are urging lawmakers not to punish them and the rest of the retirees for the controversy going on inside the teachers' retirement pension fund. Statehouse Republicans proposed combining all five public systems to cut costs and stop alleged corruption.

At 26 years old, Columbus police officer Mike Weinman responded to a car crash.

"He just drove into a tree and he thought it was a good idea to shoot me," he said.

That bullet paralyzed him, forcing him into retirement. He still worked for CPD for years but as a civilian. Now, he is the director of government affairs for the Fraternal Order of Police of Ohio (FOP).

But something that helped him survive is the Ohio Police and Fire Pension Fund (OP&F).

"The pension is one of the most important things for us," he added. "To able to collect a retirement pension — you won't really be able to do that with a 401k."

The OP&F is one of the five public pension systems that manage hundreds of billions of Ohioans' dollars. But Weinman is worried they will all suffer under a new proposal discussed during the state’s Retirement Study Council meeting on Monday.

"Let's look at merging all five systems," council co-chair state Rep. Phil Plummer (R-Dayton) said.

The State Teachers Retirement System (STRS) is embroiled in controversy. In summary, there has been constant fighting, two board resignations and allegations of both a public corruption scheme and mishandling of funds.

We have been covering this controversy from the beginning, including seven recent stories dealing with the latest problems around the alleged corruption plot. To get a larger overview of the situation, we did a Q&A with viewers and readers.

Answering viewer questions about Ohio's retired teachers' pension fund chaos

RELATED: Answering viewer questions about Ohio's retired teachers' pension fund chaos

Now, Plummer has suggested that in order to fix the STRS debacle, the state should consolidate and have only one public pension system with one board.

"We have five buildings, we have five different investment groups," he said. "We have a tremendous amount of employees, tremendous amount of overhead and costs. Can we lower it there? Can we quit spending so much money?"

Plummer isn't sure yet of any other major logistics but said he has talked about this with several other GOP lawmakers who are on board.

Weinman is rejecting this.

"Just because one system seems to be having problems right now — It's really unfair to lump everyone else into that," Weinman said.

He said OP&F will lose its voice in a sea of pensioners.

Ohio Public Employees Retirement System (OPERS) is the largest with 1.2 million members. Next is STRS with 500,000 members. School Employees Retirement System of Ohio (SERS) has 240,000 members. OP&F has 60,000. The smallest is the Ohio Highway Patrol Retirement System (HPRS) which has 3,000 members.

"What our members do out on the street isn't anything like what a clerk would do with BMV," the retired officer said, explaining both professions are valuable. "You've just got so many different dynamics there and so many different needs."

The FOP represents more than just police officers, though. They also have sheriffs and deputies. However, OP&F only covers police and firefighters. Deputies fall under OPERS, which has been a struggle for Weinman.

"They're just dwarfed by everyone else," he said. "We've already experienced what it's like the small minority in a very big system."

The lack of power in OPERS, as Weinman describes, seems to be a microcosm of what could happen to police under one giant pension fund.

"With our small number of OPERS, I can't get anyone elected to the board," he said, noting that this means sheriffs' concerns often go unnoticed.

Weinman is one of the dozens of pensioners who have reached out in opposition to this. I received messages from retirees in each of the five pension systems — all of whom are concerned and confused about how this would work logistically and legally.

It is unclear what this plan could look like: Would these combined pension funds be doled out equally to every retiree and beneficiary? Would these also be distributed equally, regardless of what each person is now getting? Would the "combined" plan wind up lowering the incomes of present retirees and beneficiaries?

"Myself and [state Rep.] Tom Young are working on legislation and we'll take it from there," Plummer said. "We need retirees input but people need to have logic and common sense."

There is no problem that is too big to be solved, he added.

"We have to have good, intelligent people willing to work on this," he said.

They don't have a structure for how this would work, but he knows he wants to address why highway patrol isn't included with police and fire.

Another plan he has is "cracking down" on disability retirements, specifically referencing law enforcement.

"We had too many people run out the door with disabilities, that's a long-term drain," Plummer said. "I've had guys work for five years, they go on disability — now, we got to pay for them for 60 years."

This is ridiculous, considering OP&F has drastically reduced disability retirements, Weinman responded.

"What makes it frustrating is that there are people with legitimate disabilities, and when people keep regurgitating this 'fake injury' nonsense, it makes them keep working," the retired officer said. "They're afraid of the stigma."

After the meeting on Monday, Plummer proposed to me that removing the elected members from the STRS board could be beneficial.

Ohio lawmakers propose removing board members from teachers’ pension fund amid controversy

RELATED: Ohio lawmakers propose removing board members from teachers’ pension fund amid controversy

He wants there to be more oversight and restructuring of, at least, the STRS board to prevent possible instances of corruption.

"Let's get people that have the knowledge, the background, the expertise involved to watch who is investing our money, how much they're investing where," the Republican added.

I asked if it could be seen as anti-democratic to remove the voices of the elected members.

"Well, it depends on how we set it up," he answered about his proposal. "If we have one major board, they still have a right to elect people."

That may be only one elected person per separate entity inside the major pension system, he added. Also, there would be appointments and investment experts.

I reached out to each other pension fund for their thoughts, but only STRS spokesperson Dan Minnich commented publicly.

"Several recent audits have concluded that STRS Ohio is well-managed and follows best practices in its operations. Over the 20-year period ending March 31, 2024, STRS Ohio’s net total fund investment return was higher than 97% of Meketa’s (the Retirement Board’s investment consultant) plan sponsor peer group," Minnich said. "STRS Ohio staff has ongoing conversations with state lawmakers and will provide legislators with all requested information as they continue their discussions about the governance of the pension system."

I asked how STRS felt that other pension systems were upset with them for getting the lawmakers riled up, but he didn't respond to that question.

"Do you feel that police and fire will be left behind if we merge all the systems?" I asked Weinman.

"Absolutely," he replied. "We're such a small number of folks overall and when you lump us into such a big system, we're going to get forgotten."

To ask questions or provide comments about STRS, please email Morgan.Trau@wews.com with the subject line "STRS COMMENT." Or, fill out the form below.

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