Ohio police reject GOP pension reform amid teacher controversy

COLUMBUS, Ohio — Ohio police officers are urging lawmakers not to punish them and other retirees over the teachers’ pension fund controversy. Republicans on Capitol Hill have proposed merging the five state systems to cut costs and end alleged corruption.

At 26, Columbus Police Officer Mike Weinman responded to the scene of a car accident.

“He just hit a tree and thought it was a good idea to shoot me,” he said.

That bullet paralyzed him, forcing him to retire. He continued to work for the CPD for years, but as a civilian. Today, he is the director of government affairs for the Ohio Fraternal Order of Police (FOP).

But what helped him survive was the Ohio Police and Firefighters Pension Fund (OP&F).

“Retirement is one of the most important things to us,” he added. “Being able to collect a pension, that’s not really possible with a 401k plan.”

OP&F is one of five public pension plans that manage hundreds of billions of dollars of Ohioans’ wealth. But Weinman worries that all of those plans could suffer under a new proposal discussed at the state Retirement Study Board meeting Monday.

“Let’s look at merging the five systems,” said council co-chairman State Rep. Phil Plummer (R-Dayton).

The State Teachers Retirement System (STRS) is mired in controversy. In short, there has been constant conflict, two board resignations, and allegations of public corruption and mismanagement of funds.

We’ve been covering this controversy since the beginning, including seven recent articles addressing the latest issues surrounding the alleged bribery plot. To get a broader perspective on the situation, we held a Q&A with viewers and readers.

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Plummer has now suggested that to solve the STRS disaster, the state should consolidate and have just one public pension system with a single board of trustees.

“We have five buildings and five different investment groups,” he said. “We have a huge number of employees, huge overhead and huge costs. Can we reduce that? Can we stop spending so much money?”

Plummer isn’t sure about other major logistics yet, but said he has talked about it with several other Republican lawmakers who are on board.

Weinman rejects this claim.

“Just because one system appears to be in trouble right now doesn’t mean you can lump all the others together,” Weinman said.

He said the OP&F would lose its voice in a sea of ​​retirees.

The Ohio Public Employees Retirement System (OPERS) is the largest with 1.2 million members. Next is STRS with 500,000 members. The Ohio School Employees Retirement System (SERS) has 240,000 members. OP&F has 60,000 members. The smallest is the Ohio Highway Patrol Retirement System (HPRS) with 3,000 members.

“What our members do on the street is nothing like what a BMV employee would do,” the retired officer said, explaining that both professions are valuable. “There are so many different dynamics and so many different needs.”

The FOP doesn’t just represent police officers. It also includes sheriffs and deputies. However, OP&F only covers police officers and firefighters. Deputies fall under OPERS, which has been a struggle for Weinman.

“They are just overshadowed by everyone else,” he said. “We’ve already experienced what it means to be a small minority in a very large system.”

OPERS’s lack of power, as Weinman describes it, seems like a microcosm of what could happen to policing under one giant pension fund.

“With our small number of OPERS, I can’t get anyone elected to the council,” he said, noting that means sheriffs’ concerns often go unnoticed.

Weinman is among dozens of retirees who have come forward to oppose the measure. I’ve received messages from retirees at each of the five pension plans, all concerned and confused about how this would work logistically and legally.

It’s unclear what that plan might look like: Would those combined pension funds be distributed equally to all retirees and beneficiaries? Would they also be distributed equally, regardless of how much each currently receives? Would the “combined” plan end up reducing the incomes of current retirees and beneficiaries?

“Myself and (State Rep.) Tom Young are working on the legislation and we’ll take it from there,” Plummer said. “We need the retirees’ input, but people have to use logic and common sense.”

“No problem is too big to solve,” he added.

“We need to have good, smart people willing to work on this,” he said.

They don’t have a structure for how that would work, but he knows he wants to explain why the highway patrol is not included with the police and fire.

Another of his plans is to “crack down” on disability pensions, with specific reference to law enforcement.

“We’ve seen too many people leave because of their disability, it’s a long-term burden,” Plummer said. “I’ve seen people work for five years, they go on disability, and now we have to pay for them for 60 years.”

This is ridiculous, given that OP&F has significantly cut disability pensions, Weinman said.

“The frustrating thing is there are people who have a legitimate disability and when they keep ruminating on this ‘fake injury’ nonsense, they keep working,” the retired officer said. “They’re afraid of the stigma.”

After Monday’s meeting, Plummer suggested to me that removing elected members from the STRS board might be beneficial.

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He wants more oversight and restructuring, at least of the STRS board, to prevent possible cases of corruption.

“Let’s bring in people who have the knowledge, experience and expertise to see who is investing our money, how much they are investing and where,” the Republican added.

I asked whether it could be considered undemocratic to suppress the voice of elected members.

“It depends on how we organize things,” he said of his proposal. “If we have one board, it will still have the right to elect its members.”

It could be just one person elected per separate entity within the main pension system, he added. There would also be appointments and investment experts.

I reached out to each pension fund for comment, but only STRS spokesperson Dan Minnich has made a public comment.

“Several recent audits have concluded that STRS Ohio is well managed and follows best practices in its operations. Over the 20-year period ending March 31, 2024, STRS Ohio’s total net investment returns exceeded 97% of Meketa’s (the Retirement Board’s investment consultant) peer group of plan sponsors,” Minnich said. “STRS Ohio staff is in ongoing conversations with state legislators and will provide them with any information requested as they continue their discussions on the governance of the retirement system.”

I asked STRS what he thought about other retirement systems being angry at them for angering lawmakers, but he didn’t answer that question.

“Do you think the police and fire departments will be left behind if we merge all the systems?” I asked Weinman.

“Absolutely,” he replied. “We are such a small number of people in the whole and if you lump us into such a big system, we are going to be forgotten.”

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