Townships keep pensions fully funded
By DREYMA BERONJA
Journal Staff Writer
NEGAUNEE TOWNSHIP — There’s been a lot of talk in the last decade about the state of municipal government. Some municipal plans in Michigan have been in the red for some time. Recently, some of those municipalities have gotten help to right the ship.
In fact, two Marquette County townships have fully funded their MERS – and they did it all by themselves.
Negaunee and Ishpeming townships were the only two municipalities in Marquette County with fully funded MERS plans, according to the Michigan Department of Treasury’s fiscal year 2022 retirement pension system summary.
According to the MERS website, the system is an “independent, professional retirement services company that was created to administer the retirement plans for Michigan’s local units of government on a not-for-profit basis.” Experts say to be viable, these plans should usually be 60% funded or more.
According to the treasury’s 2022 summary for Marquette County the city of Marquette was 66.5% funded, Negaunee Township was 108.7% funded, city of Negaunee 53.4% funded, Ishpeming Township 100% funded and the city of Ishpeming at 95.3% funded.
Back in September, Gov. Gretchen Whitmer announced that more than $553 million in Protecting MI Pension Grant awards were being sent to 123 Michigan communities, including the cities of Negaunee and Ishpeming. According to michigan.gov, the Protecting MI Pension Program was created to help Michigan’s underfunded municipal pension systems.
“After a lifetime of hard work, Michigan seniors deserve to retire with dignity,” Whitmer said in a September press release. “Today’s Protecting MI Pension Grants will ensure that Michiganders who served our communities as police officers, firefighters, sanitation workers and in so many other invaluable professions, will receive the stable, secure retirement that they earned.”
From Whitmer’s award, under the program, the city of Negaunee received almost $970,000 and the city of Ishpeming received almost $1.8 million.
According to a September press release from the city of Ishpeming, “parameters of the funding eligibility allowed for retroactive payments; as of the city’s Dec. 31, 2021, financial statement audit report, Ishpeming’s MERS was 50.3% funded.”
“The early step to bond the pension, starting in 2021 and concluding in 2022, shows the city’s commitment to its retired public service members,” State Rep. Jenn Hill, D-Marquette, said in the city’s September press release. “The additional funding secured once available through the state in 2023 shows its strategic know-how in navigating resources for its community.”
Negaunee Township Supervisor Gary Wommer said its good that the state is protecting municipal workers retirement funds.
“What that did was that it made them all solvent again, and that’s good. Believe me, I have no quarrel with that at all,” Wommer said. “It’s wonderful that people can retire and realize that they can probably live out their pension and have money in the bank. That’s a good thing.”
However, Wommer said he finds the award “bothersome” for muncipalities that fully funded their MERS plans without help from the state.
“The pension funds that were well funded, and at 100% like the state says you have to do, they (the state) didn’t give us anything,” he said.
Wommer said Negaunee Township is “extremely conservative” in the way it spends money.
“We have a lot of nice things, but we pay for them,” Wommer said. “We could have taken that pension fund money and used it for backup for grants. We could have gotten that grant, but we didn’t have the backup money because we’re paying our pension fund. If we took that money and used it for grants, we could have been throwing a lot of money around. But we didn’t.”
He said that’s where his problem lies.
“I think that the public needs to know, if for no other reason than my constituents,” Wommer said. “I’ve got 3,200 people in Negaunee Township (and) I want them to know that the reason Negaunee Township didn’t get any of that money is because we fully funded our pension as we are required by law, and I think that’s a good thing.”
For comparison, according to MERS 2022 results by municipality spreadsheet, Negaunee Township has four active employees and six retirees, Negaunee has 25 active employees and 44 retirees, Ishpeming Township has 11 active employees and eight retirees and Ishpeming has 17 active employees and 44 retirees.
Wommer said Ishpeming Township Supervisor James Nankervis agrees with him on the problem.
“Jim and I, our politics are totally opposite, but this is one thing that we can agree on,” Wommer said. “Why couldn’t they (the state) find a certain percentage of what we paid between 60 and 100 and throw us a bone? It’s much easier to pay all of those other townships and cities off, there’s only a few of us that were above 100 (percent funded). So when it comes down to people raising heck about it, there’s only a few.”
While Negaunee and Ishpeming townships can’t receive any money due to funds being from last year’s budget, Wommer said “it’s never too late to right a wrong.”
Dreyma Beronja can be reached at 906-228-2500 ext. 548. Their email address is firstname.lastname@example.org.