At one point it seemed like a hopeless struggle, but it got done. It took a decade and the efforts of several people, and there were a number of bumps in the road, but it got done.
The city of Huntington is completely caught up on monthly firefighter and police pension plan payments after those obligations at one point nearly drove the city into bankruptcy.
Public employee pensions are one of those checks that one generation of politicians can write knowing that another generation will have to cover. That's what happened in Huntington.
As described by reporter Travis Crum in The Herald-Dispatch on Sept. 5, about 10 years ago the two pension funds' obligations consumed about 30% of the city's budget. Pension obligations and personnel costs composed 72% of the budget, leaving only $10 million of a $38 million budget for public services.
Then-Mayor David Felinton asked the Legislature for help, but none was coming. In 2010, then-Mayor Kim Wolfe met regularly with then-Gov. Joe Manchin to develop a solution. Manchin said if Huntington devised a plan that did not rely on state funding, he would place it on a special session agenda later in the year. The Legislature passed municipal pension reform that November.
The new system worked for a while. It was soon discovered that the figures the city had used to calculate its police and fire pension contributions for fiscal years 2010 and 2011 were off, creating a budget shortfall of $4.2 million.
Current Mayor Steve Williams inherited the problem when he defeated Wolfe in the 2012 election. His hand was forced during a budgeting crisis in 2017. An error in the formula used to calculate life expectancy meant the city had to come up with an additional $1.4 million to cover its pension payments.
This unexpected pension obligation, the rising cost of health insurance and overspending by the police and fire departments were cited as reasons to lay off 24 employees later that year - 17 from the police department and seven from the fire department.
Williams directed the city's finance division to reduce expenses throughout the city to offset the pension deficit. The department developed a new process that oversaw spending in each of the city's divisions and departments.
During an Aug. 26 City Council meeting, Assistant Finance Director Angela Shockley announced the city had completely caught up on the monthly payments and had significantly raised the net worth of the pension plans. As of June 30, the police pension fund had a net worth of $40 million, or an 80% increase since June 30, 2013. The fire pension fund had a net worth of $29.9 million, an increase of 121.5%, she said.
Others got the process started, and Williams' administration brought it to completion.
Now there are two questions: Can this success be sustained? Or will there be temptations to neglect pension obligations as a way of dealing with the demands or the crisis of a future moment?
Sooner or later, city officials will be tempted to return to the old ways. That would waste the hard work and difficult decisions of the past 10 years.
But that's a concern for another day. This threat to the city's abilities to provide services the public expects has been dealt with. A few years ago, Huntington was seen as what could happen elsewhere if pension plans were not brought under control. Now it can be seen as what can happen if they are. That's a good thing.