Oct. 6, 2003 – Efforts are under way this month to recruit younger government workers to take an active role planning for their future — a future which a group of retiree activists sees as dangerously fragile if steps aren't taken now to revamp the Government Employees Retirement System.
"We plan to go into the offices and recruit membership," Ida White, spokeswoman for Advocates for the Preservation of the Retirement System, said on Monday. "We don't want to be perceived as a group of older retirees."
The group will hold its second annual meeting on Oct. 18 from 10 a.m. to noon in the Charlotte Amalie High School auditorium. With an eye toward attracting workers nowhere near retirement age to the meeting, White said, its theme is "Don't be 'The Young and the Clueless.'" Raymond James, GERS board chair, and Sen. Louis Hill will be the guest speakers.
White, a retired teacher, said her retirement benefits and those of others of her generation are probably not in jeopardy. "It's the younger people we are concerned about," she said.
GERS is going broke, Laurence Bryan, the system administrator, told the Senate Finance Committee in August. The system was facing a deficit of $731.7 million at that time, he said. It has gone to court to collect money owed by the central government, he said, and if contributions continue at their current level, it will be bankrupt in 20 years.
The reform group, organized in October 2001 to try to protect the future of GERS, wants the repeal of legislation which its members say is detrimental to the system. Founding members include Hugo Dennis, three-term senator and one-time Senate president, and Aubrey Lee, a former Labor Department official.
Dennis, who served as chair until his two-year term expired, has been replaced by Vernelle de Lagarde, president of the St. Thomas-St. John Federation of Teachers. "That sends another message to the community about retirees," White said. "Vernelle is a very active, very prominent person."
The advocates group has collected more than 6,000 signatures of government retirees and other V.I. taxpayers and voters on a petition asking the Legislature to repeal two laws that further damage an already fragile retirement system, according to the group. They are:
– Act 6429, which granted early retirement benefits to certain Water and Power Authority hazardous duty employees and increased the cap on senators' pensions to 75 percent of their most recent salaries, up from the previous 65 percent.
– Act 6430, which empowers the GERS board to borrow money and issue bonds against the retirement system assets. This authority, APRS members say, could undermine the financial stability of the system, jeopardizing its capacity to meet current and future obligations.
The petition has been delivered to Senate President David Jones, White said, but so far "we have had virtually no response." Jones was off island Monday and unavailable for comment.
Hill said he is drafting legislation, which he will discuss at the meeting, "to move the responsibility and the authority to set the level of employee and government contributions to the board and the management of the GERS." The levels are now where they have been "forever, because the Legislature has been unwilling, for whatever reason, to adjust the rates as circumstances change," he said.
White urged all government employees and retirees to attend the Oct. 18 meeting. "A retirement system is a terrible thing to waste," she said.
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