Pension board members spend big on out-of-state conferences

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The most frequent flyer is Barbra Phillips, a bus driver from Ashland city schools who made a dozen out-of-state trips at a cost of $49,553. A review of her travel receipts shows Phillips enjoys medium rare steaks, Starbucks lattes and crème brulee while she is on the road — expenses covered by the public pension system.

“It is very disconcerting that these are the same folks who are elected by the members and retirees of SERS to watch over their fund and to protect the fund’s assets so they can maximize the benefits to the retirees and members,” said state Rep. J. Kirk Schuring, R-Canton, a long-time member of the Ohio Retirement Study Council. “This has just got to come to an end, particularly on the heels of the reform efforts passed last year by SERS and the other funds that ask members to make sacrifices.”

Valerie Rodgers, director of the School Employee Retirees Organization, echoed those comments: “That is the retirees’ money. Where is the level of sensitivity to the retirees who they are serving? None of these retirees who they are serving would ever be able to afford to travel to these places.”

SERO, which represents retirees in the pension system, issued a statement pleading with the board to reconsider the Hawaii trip.

The average monthly pension benefit for a School Employees Retirement System retiree is $973.

Phillips and fellow board members Mary Ann Howell and Catherine Moss are scheduled to attend a May conference in Hawaii, which is expected to cost the pension system $11,000. Despite public pressure and lawmaker ire, the board members have refused to cancel their plans.

The SERS board meets Thursday and Friday in Columbus and will discuss the travel. SERS spokesman Tim Barbour said a big crowd is expected and plans have been made for an overflow room with a TV simulcast of the meeting.

Board members declined to be interviewed for this story. But Phillips told her hometown newspaper, the Ashland Times Gazette, that despite the public perception she feels obligated to attend educational conferences to be better able to decided how to invest assets.

Billions in assets

The School Employees Retirement System, which has $10.6 billion in assets, represents bus drivers, custodians, cafeteria workers and office staff in Ohio’s public schools. It is funded through a combination of worker and taxpayer contributions and investment returns.

There is no doubt that board member education is imperative. Most of the 51 board members of Ohio’s five public pension systems are police officers, firefighters, teachers, bus drivers and retirees who come to the systems without investment expertise. With the help of finance experts and staff, they decide how to invest $165 billion in assets for the benefit of 1.7 million Ohioans. Board members are legally obligated to act in the best interest of the funds.

But SERS spent $241,391 to send a handful of board members on 67 out-of-state trips from fiscal year 2009 to fiscal year 2012. The Daily News found that:

  • Seminars are held in high-cost vacation destinations including Las Vegas, midtown Manhattan and Walt Disney World.
  • Some conferences only schedule participants for five to six hours a day.
  • Participants sometimes bring along family members, though their expenses are not covered by the fund.
  • Board members are issued SERS credit cards for their travel expenses.

SERS reimburses the board members’ employers for the cost of covering their missed work shifts.

While Phillips took 12 trips, fellow board members Beverly Woolridge and Catherine Moss each took 10 trips, Mark Anderson took nine trips and Madonna Faragher and James Rossler Jr. took in eight out-of-state conferences.

SERS provides online training and in-house educational seminars for board members, Barbour said. State law requires all pension board members to have at least two approved training sessions a year and proscribes that they be delivered in-house, according to the Ohio Retirement Study Council.

Extra time away

Expense reports show that members are eager to get to the out-of-town conferences and slow to return home, taking advantage of a policy that allows them a travel day on each end of the trip.

At a 2011 conference in Miami, expense receipts show Moss made a side trip to Key West on May 26 and flew home the afternoon of May 27. The conference agenda shows the event wrapping up with dinner and a show on May 25, followed by a 1-hour business meeting the morning of May 26.

In 2012, Moss arrived in New York the morning of May 4 and flew home the evening of May 11, giving her a day on each end of the May 5-10 conference. The NCPERS 2012 conference agenda shows sessions ending between 1 p.m. and 3:30 p.m. each day and only a 1-hour “annual business meeting” scheduled for the morning of May 10. That left time for a $40 pedicab ride from Central Park to the hotel on May 10 — an item billed to SERS — and an extra night in midtown Manhattan at the $433-a-night Hilton New York.

Schuring said the travel days bracketing a conference serve as an incentive to use the conferences as a quasi-vacation.

“This type of extravagance needs to be reined in and if the board is not willing to do it on their own, perhaps we need to look at a legislative remedy,” he said.

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