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Protecting the Pension System

Protecting the Pension SystemSince taking office, New York State Comptroller Thomas P. DiNapoli has fought against the abuse of public funds. One of his top priorities is to protect the New York State and Local Retirement System (NYSLRS) from pension scammers.

To date, DiNapoli’s investigations of retirement fraud have led to 24 arrests and the recovery of nearly $3 million in retirement funds. Here are some cases from earlier this year:

Woman Pleads Guilty to Theft of Dead Mother’s Benefits

A Madison County woman pleaded guilty to a felony grand larceny charge for collecting $67,000 of her dead mother’s NYSLRS pension checks. When her mother died in 2009, Tammy Banack did not inform NYSLRS or her bank, and her mother’s pension checks continued to be deposited in a joint checking account. Banack agreed to repay the stolen pension benefits and received five years’ probation.

Man Pleads Guilty to Stealing Pension Checks

A Brooklyn man was arrested for cashing over $22,000 of his mother’s NYSLRS pension checks after she died. Jimmie Buie pleaded guilty and was sentenced to up to three years in prison. He was also ordered to repay the money. The office of New York State Attorney General Eric T. Schneiderman assisted in this case and the Banack case.

Town Clerk Admits Faking Retirement Benefits

Following a review of monthly retirement reports, the Office of the State Comptroller discovered that a town clerk had been unlawfully using a town computer to inflate her retirement service credit. Springport Town Clerk Deborah Waldron pleaded guilty, resigned and paid fines and surcharges. Her actual hours and benefits were recalculated to ensure she does not receive extra money she did not earn.

To learn more about how Comptroller DiNapoli safeguards public funds, and how you can help, visit the Comptroller’s Fighting Public Corruption page. You can also read about past pension fraud investigations.

A Look Inside NYSLRS

Want an inside view of NYSLRS and the New York State Common Retirement Fund (Fund)? Curious about how the Fund is managed and how well its investments are performing? Then check out the latest Comprehensive Annual Financial Report (CAFR).

The 2017 CAFR, which covers the state fiscal year that ended on March 31, 2017, is chock full of facts and figures that offer a detailed look at the Retirement System and the Fund. The biggest story is the financial health of the Fund. The Fund’s assets were valued at $192.4 billion at the end of the fiscal year and continued to grow, reaching an estimated value of $201.3 billion as of September 30, 2017. The average return on Fund investments in fiscal year 2017 was 11.48 percent, well above the long-term expected rate of return of 7 percent.

The soundness of NYSLRS was confirmed by several recent independent studies, which concluded that the New York State’s pension system is one of the best-funded public pension systems in the nation. And that means NYSLRS’ 652,324 members and 452,455 retirees and beneficiaries can rest assured their pensions will be there for them in retirement.

A Look Inside NYSLRS

The average pension for an Employees’ Retirement System (ERS) retiree was $23,026; the average for a Police and Fire Retirement System was $49,123. In all, NYSLRS paid out $11.3 billion in benefits during the fiscal year. (Fund investment earnings covered 75 percent of the cost of these benefits.) But NYSLRS pension payments don’t just benefit the system’s retirees and beneficiaries. Because 78 percent of NYSLRS retirees and beneficiaries live in New York, $9.1 billion worth of benefits stayed in the State. And that money supported local businesses, paid local taxes and generated economic development statewide.

An Award-Winning Publication

NYSLRS received a Certificate of Achievement for Excellence in Financial Reporting for the 2016 CAFR. The Certificate of Achievement is a national award recognizing excellence in the preparation of state and local government financial reports. NYSLRS has won this award for the last 13 years.

Sunshine on the Retirement Savings Horizon

Headlines in recent years offer a stormy retirement forecast: “Americans Get a Grade C in Retirement Readiness,” “More Than Four in Ten Households Wrong About Retirement Readiness,” “The Shockingly Small Amount Americans Have in Retirement Savings.”

Unfortunately, research and statistics tend to back up these dire warnings. According to the Pew Charitable Trusts, a significant portion of Americans — 42 percent — lack access to an employer-sponsored retirement plan such as a 401(k), 403(b) or 457(b). Among those whose employers do offer a plan, only 49 percent actually participate.

In fact, research from the Federal Reserve suggests that 28 percent of people who haven’t retired yet have no retirement savings whatsoever. So, it’s not surprising that a report from the Schwartz Center for Economic Policy Analysis predicts that the “number of 65-year-olds per year who are poor or near poor will increase by 146 percent between 2013 and 2022.”

The Good News

There is promising news about retirement, though, if you look for it. Americans — particularly Millennials (those born 1979 through 1996) — are starting to save for retirement much sooner than previous generations. According to the TransAmerica Center for Retirement Studies, Millennials begin to put away for retirement at a median age of 22. Generation X workers waited until 27, and Baby Boomers didn’t start until age 35.

Sunshine on the Retirement Savings Horizon

Perhaps this earlier focus on saving is responsible for other good news. For example, Fidelity Investments reports record 401(k) balances in 2016: $92,500 at the end of the fourth quarter, which is up $4,300 from 2015. And, earlier this year, the Employee Benefit Research Institute found that 55.4 percent of investors — more than ever before — are maxing out their individual retirement account (IRA) contributions.

That said …

Americans do have a retirement problem. New York State Comptroller Thomas P. DiNapoli speaks regularly about the need for policies at the state and federal levels of government to ensure retirement security for everyone, including workers in the private sector.

As individuals, the solution is simple: We need to save, and we need to start early. NYSLRS members have the rare advantage of a well-funded, defined-benefit pension. However, your pension and Social Security benefits are only part of a well-rounded financial plan. Consider contributing to a New York State Deferred Compensation Plan (NYSDCP) account. NYSDCP is a voluntary retirement savings plan — similar to private sector 401(k) or 403(b) plans — created for employees of New York State and other participating employers. If you work for a local government employer, please check with your human resources administrator to find out what savings plans are available to you.

Retirement Fund Enjoys Strong Investment Returns

The New York State Common Retirement Fund (Fund) earned an estimated 11.42 percent on investments during the State fiscal year ending March 31, 2017, exceeding the long-term expected rate of return of 7 percent. The Fund ended the year with an estimated value of $192 billion.

Comptroller Thomas P. DiNapoli, Trustee of the Fund, credited the growth to a diversified investment strategy and strong returns on investments, particularly in the fourth quarter. Domestic and non-U.S. equities (stocks) performed particularly well, with an overall return of 17 percent. The return on real estate investments was nearly 11 percent. All returns are estimates, pending audited data that will be available later this year.

NYS Common Retirement Fund return on investments Fiscal Year 2017

The financial soundness of the New York State and Local Retirement System (NYSLRS) has been confirmed by two independent studies. A report by S&P Global Ratings ranked NYSLRS as the third best funded state pension system in the country for 2015. Only South Dakota and Wisconsin ranked higher. A study by the Pew Charitable Trusts also showed NYSLRS in the top three nationwide.

The Fund is the third-largest public pension fund in the country. NYSLRS provides retirement security to more than one million active state and local government employees, retirees and their beneficiaries. During the fiscal year that ended March 31, 2016, NYSLRS paid out $10.9 billion in retirement and death benefits. More than $8.6 billion was paid to residents of New York State, which generated local spending and provided economic support New York businesses and communities.

Welcome New Members

Welcome to new members of the New York State and Local Retirement System (NYSLRS).

NYSLRS is here to help you plan for a financially secure retirement. Your retirement may be far in the future, but decisions you make now will have a big impact on your later years. Here are a few things you should know:

How Pensions Work

A NYSLRS pension is a defined benefit plan. Under this type of plan, once you are eligible for a pension and apply for retirement, you will receive a monthly payment for your lifetime. Your pension benefits are determined by a preset formula set by law. However, many employees in the United States, particularly in the private sector, are enrolled in 401(k)-style plans. The ultimate value of a 401(k) plan is based on the contributions made and investment returns. While 401(k) plans and other individual retirement accounts are a way to supplement your pension and Social Security payments, they do not provide the same level of security as defined benefit plans. Unlike your pension, these plans do not guarantee a lifetime benefit. Learn more about how pensions work.

New Members Checklist

Service Credit

Your NYSLRS pension will be based on factors such as your tier, retirement plan, age at retirement, final average salary, and service credit. One year of full-time employment with a participating employer is equal to a one year of service credit. Part-time employment is prorated. You may also be able to buy service credit for previous public employment or military service, which in most cases would increase your pension.

Start Saving Now

Because having a defined benefit pension plan is only one part of building a financially secure future, it’s essential that you save additional money for retirement. State workers and employees of participating local governments can take advantage of the New York State Deferred Compensation Plan. You can start by having as little as $10 deducted from each paycheck. You may choose how your money will be invested from a variety of options. Because of how compound interest works, the earlier you start saving, the better off you’ll be.

More Information

You’ll find more information in our booklet Membership in a Nutshell. We also publish booklets about specific retirement plans. If you know which system you’re in (Employees’ Retirement System or Police and Fire Retirement System) and your tier, you should be able to find your plan. If you are not sure what plan you’re in, ask your employer.

Stopping Pension Fraud

Stopping Pension Fraud is a top priority of Comptroller Thomas P. DiNapoliSince taking office, New York State Comptroller Thomas P. DiNapoli has battled public corruption. One of his top priorities is to protect the New York State and Local Retirement System (NYSLRS) from pension scammers.

Under the direction of Comptroller DiNapoli, NYSLRS has put in place a system of safeguards designed to prevent and identify potential incidents of pension fraud. One such safeguard uses data analytics to uncover and stop improper payments.

Post-Retirement Employment Violations

Our investigative efforts include a focus on post-retirement employment. New York State law restricts the amount of money public sector retirees can earn if they return to public service employment after retirement. The law permits public sector retirees under the age of 65 to earn up to $30,000 per year from public employment before their pension benefits are suspended.

As of this March, our review of post-retirement employment cases have uncovered more than $700,000 in benefit payments subject to recovery. For example, a former Newburgh City Fire Chief, who double-dipped by collecting $95,000 in pension payments while still working as fire chief, was federally convicted.

The “Muscle” in the Pension Fraud Fight

In some cases, the pension fraud NYSLRS uncovers gets referred to Comptroller DiNapoli’s wider umbrella program to root out public corruption and fraud involving public funds. The Comptroller’s aggressive initiative included partnering with federal, state and local prosecutors and law enforcement statewide, including DiNapoli’s groundbreaking “Operation Integrity” task force with Attorney General Schneiderman. To date, Comptroller DiNapoli’s various partnerships have garnered more than 130 arrests and $30 million in ordered recoveries.

NYSLRS’ partnership with DiNapoli’s “Operation Integrity” has resulted in the investigation, prosecution and recovery of stolen pension payments, exposing $2.75 million in pension fraud in recent years.

Here are some recent cases where pension scammers have been thwarted:

Comptroller DiNapoli and NYSLRS will not tolerate pension fraud. These arrests and convictions serve as warnings to those who might steal pension benefits: if you think you can steal the hard-earned benefits of NYSLRS members and retirees, you are gravely mistaken. When fraud is identified, Comptroller DiNapoli will work with law enforcement to hold the pension scammers accountable. The clear message to anyone who tries to defraud our pension system is that you will be found, and you will pay.

If you suspect someone of pension fraud, call the Comptroller’s toll-free Fraud Hotline at 1-888-672-4555, file a complaint online at investigations@osc.state.ny.us, or mail a complaint to: Office of the State Comptroller, Division of Investigations, 14th Floor, 110 State St., Albany, NY 12236.

How NYSLRS Retirees Contribute to New York’s Economy

Public pensions play an important role in our state’s economic health. The pensions NYSLRS retirees earn flow back into their communities in the form of property and sales tax payments, and local purchases. When public retirees stay in New York, they help stimulate and grow local economies.

NYSLRS Retirees Who Call New York Home

As of March 31, 2016, there are 440,943 NYSLRS retirees and beneficiaries. Seventy-eight percent of them – 345,643 – continue to live in New York. Suffolk County is home to the largest number of NYSLRS retirees and beneficiaries. More than $1 billion in pension benefits went to the 33,290 individuals who live there. Erie County has the second largest number of benefit recipients (29,029), who received $701.5 million.

NYSLRS Retirees Contribute

The Economic Impact of NYSLRS Retirees

NYSLRS retirees are patrons of local business and services, and they pay state and local taxes. By spending their retirement income locally, they help fuel the economic engines of their communities. In fact, a study by the National Institute for Retirement Security (NIRS) found that state and local pensions in New York State supported 215,867 jobs, driving $35.3 billion in total economic output and $8.1 billion in federal, state, and local tax revenues.

New York mirrored the NIRS report’s results across the rest of America. Nationally, retiree spending of pension benefits in 2014 generated $1.2 trillion in total economic output, supporting some 7.1 million jobs across the U.S.

The NIRS report suggests that a stable and secure pension benefit that won’t run out enables retirees to pay for their basic needs like housing, food, medicine and clothing. It’s good for the economy when retirees are self-sufficient and regularly spend their pension income. They spend that money on goods and services in the local community. They purchase food, clothing, and medicine at local stores, pay housing costs, and may even make larger purchases like computer equipment or a car. These purchases combine to create a steady economic ripple effect. Retirees with inadequate 401(k) savings who might be fearful of running out of savings tend to hold back on spending. This reduced spending stunts economic growth, which already is predicted to drop by one-third as the U.S. population ages.

NYSLRS Retirees Pay Their Share of Taxes

NYSLRS retirees live throughout the different regions of New York, but they only make up 2.9 percent of the general population. In some cases, they pay a larger share of property taxes. For instance, in the Capital District, retirees make up 5 percent of the population yet they pay 8.7 percent of the property taxes, which totals $218 million. In the North Country, retirees make up 4.3 percent of the population and pay 6.8 percent of the property taxes ($55 million). 

Retirees Build a Strong New York

After a career in public service, NYSLRS retirees continue to contribute to their communities and the State. Their pensions are a sound investment in New York’s future. Public pensions don’t just benefit those who receive them, but they pay dividends to local businesses, support local communities, and create jobs. As the number of NYSLRS retirees grows, it’s likely they will continue to help build a strong New York.

What is the CAFR?

Last week, we published the latest Comprehensive Annual Financial Report (CAFR). This annual report gives a clear view about how both NYSLRS and the New York State Common Retirement Fund (Fund) are managed. This year’s CAFR covers our last State fiscal year, from April 1, 2015 through March 31, 2016.

The CAFR and Transparency

Each year when the CAFR is prepared, we strive to make sure the data is accurate, complete, and clear. For example, the financial section was prepared in keeping with accounting principles established by the Governmental Accounting Standards Board, and reporting requirements outlined by the Government Finance Officers Association of the United States and Canada. These principles set standards for financial accounting and reporting. By following them, we can see how we compare with other government entities using the same standards, ensure our data is consistent between accounting periods, and provide reliable financial statements to the public.

Comptroller DiNapoli is responsible for the Fund’s management. He ensures that investment policies and practices follow the highest levels of ethical conduct and transparency. The CAFR aids in transparency by providing historical data and extensive detail about the Fund’s audited assets, liabilities, investments, and transactions.

The CAFR provides many facts and figures about both NYSLRS and the Fund. Here are some statistics from the past fiscal year:

  • As of April 1, 2016, there were a total of 647,399 NYSLRS members; 612,294 in the Employees’ Retirement System (ERS) and 35,105 in the Police and Fire Retirement System (PFRS).
  • As of April 1, 2016, there were 440,943 NYSLRS retirees, 78 percent of whom live in New York.
  • As of April 1, 2016, there were a total of 3,040 participating NYSLRS employers.
  • The largest holdings in the Fund’s portfolio include:
    • Apple, Inc.
    • General Electric Company
    • AT&T, Inc.
    • Exxon Mobil Corp.
    • Microsoft Corp.
  • The Fund has invested approximately $9 billion with minority- and women-owned business enterprises since Comptroller DiNapoli took office in 2007.

This fact sheet (PDF) summarizes many other NYSLRS statistics you’ll find in the new CAFR. You can also find back issues of the CAFR on our website.

A Quick Look at the NYS Common Retirement Fund

Comptroller Thomas P. DiNapoli is the trustee of the Common Retirement Fund, which is the third largest public pension fund in the country. The Fund’s assets come from three main sources: member contributions, employer contributions, and investment returns. The Fund has two main goals:

  • Provide the means to pay benefits to NYSLRS’ participants; and
  • Minimize employer contributions through an investment program designed to protect and enhance the long-term value of the assets.

Over the last 20 years, 79 percent of benefits have been funded from investment returns. When you retire from NYSLRS, your monthly pension benefit—and the benefits of many others—will be drawn from this fund. Ethical management and a long-term, diversified investment strategy has made NYSLRS one of the best managed and funded plans in the nation.
Common Retirement Fund Assets

Strategic Long-Term Investments

The Fund’s investment program is designed to weather the ups and downs of an increasingly volatile global market. Our long-term target allocation for our investment portfolio is 22 percent in fixed income assets (bonds and Treasury Inflation Protected Securities [TIPS]) and 78 percent in equities, which includes:

  • Domestic and international public equities
  • Real estate
  • Real assets
  • Absolute return strategies
  • Mortgages
  • Private equity investments
  • Opportunistic funds

A diversified investment strategy helps us meet the funding needs for our current and future retirees while also helping to control risk.

The Fund is Well-Managed

An independent review of the Fund commended Comptroller DiNapoli and NYSLRS for strong policies and ethical management. By adhering to the highest standards of accountability and transparency, our members, retirees, and beneficiaries can be confident the Fund is being managed wisely.

NYSLRS Basics: Member Contributions

As a NYSLRS member, you may be making or have made contributions as part of your membership. When you make contributions, a percentage of your salary joins a pool of money called the Common Retirement Fund (the Fund). The Fund is also made up of employer contributions and investment income. By investing contributions, the Fund helps to meet its obligation of paying out benefits to past, present and future retirees.

What this means for you is that you, and other members like you, are all doing your part to fund your future retirement.

Types of Member Contributions

If you belong to a contributory retirement plan, you make required contributions. This means you must make contributions for the length of time listed in your retirement plan. Some members may contribute for only part or all their public service careers. If you belong to a non-contributory plan, this means you aren’t required to make contributions. Instead, you could make voluntary contributions over the course of your career, if your plan allows it. This would provide you with an annuity in addition to your pension when you retire.

(Check out the “Contributing Toward Your Retirement” section in your specific retirement plan publication to see what contributions you make.)

contributions-ers-pfrs-tiers-3-6

Withdrawing Your Member Contributions

What happens to your contributions if you leave public employment? One option is to take your contributions with you. If you have less than ten years of service credit or aren’t vested, you can withdraw your contributions plus the interest they’ve earned. However, withdrawing your contributions also terminates your membership with NYSLRS. Once your membership ends, you won’t be eligible for a retirement benefit.

Another option is to leave your contributions where they are. After all, if you leave public employment, there’s a chance you may return as well. If you do, then your contributions will be waiting for you when you rejoin NYSLRS. If you don’t return to public service, aren’t vested, and have been off the public payroll for seven years, by law we must terminate your membership. Any contributions left will stop accruing interest.

If you have ten or more years of service credit, you can’t withdraw your contributions from NYSLRS. In that situation, if you’re vested before you leave public employment, you can apply for a retirement benefit at a later date (age 55 for most members).

(Read our publication “What If I Leave Public Employment?” for more information, particularly the taxability of withdrawing your contributions.)

If you have questions, visit our website to learn more about member contributions. Want to read more NYSLRS Basics? Check out our earlier posts on: