Mayor Steve Williams

Huntington Mayor Steve Williams

The city of Huntington is taking the right approach in correcting some mistakes related to the pension payouts to some of its firefighters and police officers.

Basically, the city is acknowledging that those former city employees were not responsible for the errors and therefore should not suffer the consequences now. That decision, made last week by the City Council, is the correct one.

The issue with incorrect pension payments for some police officers and firefighters publicly came to light in the spring of 2017 following an audit of the city’s 2016 books. A more in-depth study showed that some retired police officers and firefighters were being paid too much each month, while others were not being paid enough.

The problem resulted because the city had incorrectly calculated pension payouts for employees who had retired prior to July 5, 2016, while those who had retired after that date were being paid correctly. While the problem was identified two years ago, what to do about the improper payments remained a question.

The council answered that question on Dec. 23. The retirees who were overpaid because of pension miscalculations will not have to repay the city or have their pay affected, the council decided. Any retirees who were underpaid will be given back pay and their payments will be adjusted to the correct amount going forward.

“Our retirees have worked for decades protecting our city, protecting our families, protecting our property and placing their own lives at risk every single day with a promise that we would provide them a pension they would be able to rely upon,” Mayor Steve Williams said. “It’s not the fault of the retirees that a miscalculation was made to overpay their pension. It could be within our legal rights for us just to say, ‘Pay us back,’ but that is just wrong, that is not right and that’s not the way we do business.”

The city had that choice at its disposal because the Municipal Pensions Oversight Board, with urging from state legislators, agreed to let cities decide for themselves what to do about the situation.

The pension system for municipal firefighters and police officers has long been a challenge for Huntington and many other cities. The municipalities had a difficult time keeping up with funding the pension funds to the requirements set by the state, and the cities’ annual contributions to the pension funds were eating up a larger share of their annual budgets each year, it seemed. Finally, city officials were able to convince the Legislature several years ago to revamp the systems so the annual payments and the total dollar obligations would level off and perhaps even decrease over time.

Besides those troubles, large-dollar surprises would surface occasionally because the city’s annual payments to the state had not been figured correctly, and the city found itself in an even deeper financial whole.

Those issues seem to have been ironed out, however.

Williams reported last week that the net worth for the police officer fund was $22.4 million in 2013, and has now grown to $41.6 million. The fund for firefighters was $13 million in 2013, and has now grown to $30.7 million. The mayor also noted that the city is now current in its pension payments.

City officials deserve credit for taking the compassionate route on the miscalculated payments to retirees, as well as putting the pension funds in a much better position. Now they must focus on preventing further missteps in the future.

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