The Pacific president, one of the top PERS recipients, is willing to take a hit

Lesley HallickLast week’s vote in the Oregon Senate all but guarantees that some form of public pension reform will pass this year in Salem, leaving only questions about whether the final bill can survive a legal challenge and, if so, how much of a financial hit retirees will take.

While unions continue to oppose virtually any change to the Public Employee Retirement System, one of the retirees benefiting most from the current system said she is open to a big cut in her monthly pension checks.

“I am all for reform that results in better ability to structure the system,” said Lesley Hallick, president of Pacific University.

Hallick isn’t just any retiree. Last year she received an estimated PERS benefit of $292,000, the fourth highest in the state.

Hallick’s hefty public pension is a reward for her 32 years at Oregon Health & Science University, where she rose through the ranks, eventually holding the office of vice president for academic affairs and provost before leaving her $442,500-a-year post for Pacific in 2009 at the age of 63.

There have been several proposals aimed at curbing the PERS payouts given to people like Hallick (who is one of 947 retirees earning more than 100,000 in benefits each year). Most attention has focused on the current practice of making annual cost of living adjustments (up to 2 percent) each year on PERS pensions.

That means if the COLA is at the full 2 percent, Hallick’s benefits would increase by about $5,842 next year.

But under a proposal from Gov. John Kitzhaber, the cost-of-living adjustments would apply to only the first $24,000 of benefits, meaning Halick would get the maximum bump of just $480 a year.

That adds up. According to a “PERS COLA Calculator” created by the Oregon Education Association, Hallick stands to lose more than $163,000 in pension benefits over the next 10 years if Kitzhaber’s reform passes.

The proposal passed in the Senate last week, crafted by Democratic lawmakers, would also restrict COLA increases, though not as much as Kitzhaber’s plans.

Hallick, for her part, supports any reform that doesn’t violate past collective bargaining agreements.

“If it’s legal then it’s valid to consider,” Hallick told a group of Pacific journalism students earlier this year.

Hallick told the students that times were very different when the labor agreements over her retirement plan were first being made. She would like to see a change that could free up PERS funds for other government programs, including education. Kitzhaber’s plan is estimated to cut $405 million out of PERS benefits each year, while the proposal from Democratic lawmakers would save a bit over half of that.

“I have a lot of faith that it’ll work out,” said Hallick, who added that she’s not concerned about her own pension. “Whether it goes up or down, the state has to do something.”

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