E  veryone seems to be jumping on Pennsylvania Auditor General Jack Wagner's bandwagon since he released a report Wednesday identifying more than a third of Pennsylvania's municipal retirement plans as financially distressed.

York City, for example, has firefighter and police pension plans that have been labeled "moderately distressed" by the auditor general.

But York City isn't alone in that designation. There are 234 pension plans throughout the state that fall into the same category, including Penn Township, West Manheim Township and the York Area Regional Police.

A total of 663 plans are considered minimally distressed, 23 in York County.

And 52 of 2,600 municipal pensions statewide -- but none in York County -- are considered "severely distressed," according to Wagner's report.

Wagner's solution to that problem is to throw all the municipal pension programs into the same pot -- call it a consolidation -- and let the state's experts manage them.

Wagner, of course, is optimistic about this approach. A combined system would provide higher investment returns, he said, and reduce the administrative costs of running individual systems.

That would save taxpayers money, he said, which is the basis for his consolidation plan.

If only it were that easy.


I suspect there might be some resistance from York County, especially since there are only 28 municipal pension plans listed in Wagner's study, all either minimally (23) or moderately (5) distressed.

What makes anyone think taxpayers throughout York County or statewide, for that matter, are going to be any more enthusiastic about consolidating their municipal pension plans than they have been to consolidate their police departments, their fire departments, their highway maintenance departments, their purchasing programs or their public school systems?

Or anything, for that matter.

Some have, of course. And it does seem to have worked because it's saving someone money or time or resources or something. There must be some benefit that's come out of it or they wouldn't keep doing it.

But most municipalities haven't done it. And there must be reasons for that, too.

No good reasons, perhaps, but reasons nevertheless.

It could be a fear of losing control of their own destiny. It could be something territorial about it. It could be a concern about costs growing beyond their ability to pay. It could be they're more comfortable being a large fish in a small pond, rather than a small fish in a large pond.

It could be something entirely parochial in nature -- they like their identity as it is, and they don't want to change.

There could be a thousand reasons, I guess.

But, Wagner said, "Pennsylvania has too many small and underfunded municipal pension plans that could cost taxpayers millions of dollars to maintain. Consolidation is the best way to preserve benefits for retirees while protecting taxpayers from higher tax bills they can't afford."

Hey, I couldn't agree more -- in principle.

If -- and it's a big "if" -- the state (and the federal government, as well) had track records for always doing what was best for taxpayers, I'd be all for it.

They don't.

Look no farther than the God-awful mess former Gov. Tom Ridge and the General Assembly left taxpayers in when they stuck their fingers in the lawmakers', teachers' and state employees' pensions 10 years ago.

Taxpayers have been suffering ever since. And they'll still be suffering five and 10 years down the road.

And if that's not enough reason to be skeptical of Wagner's proposal, consider the federal Social Security Trust Fund and the $2.6 trillion the federal government owes to America's pension plan for money it borrowed from the plan over a period of 30 years, at least.

But hasn't paid back.

Now, the experts are quick to tell us, the Social Security Trust Fund is in danger of going down the tubes. Not because taxpayers didn't pay enough money into the system, but because federal bureaucrats took it out for other purposes as quickly as it was put in.

That is my big concern about Wagner's proposal.

I've read the entire 59-page report -- "Analysis of Local Government Pension Plans" -- and I don't recall seeing one word about a "lockbox" into which the funds would be deposited and could not be touched by state government officials for any purpose but that for which it was intended.

I want to hear -- and see in writing -- a promise that the municipal pension plan Wagner's talking about will never be used by state officials to pay off other debt, to provide funding for short- or long-term projects, to build highways, to construct minor league baseball stadiums, to fund economic development or any of a thousand possible ideas someone might have for spending municipal pension dollars.

In some cases, the municipal pension funds are in enough trouble as they are, we don't need state officials making it worse.

So until state officials promise -- in writing -- that will never happen, I'm one taxpayer who has serious reservations about this plan.

Columns by Larry A. Hicks, Dispatch columnist, run Mondays, Wednesdays and Fridays. E-mail: lhicks@yorkdispatch.com.