A little more than four months ago, two-term Gov. Ted Kulongoski identified ballooning labor costs as a key challenge for the state's budget writers after he leaves office next year.
In particular, the Democratic governor's office highlighted the financial burden on the state from the Public Employees Retirement System, which will grow by more than $350 million in the next two years. By 2017, that increased cost will be $1 billion.
Divided among Oregon's nearly 4 million residents, that amount represents a shared cost of almost $250 per person.
Yet PERS administrators are Roguishly intent on blocking public scrutiny of this critical budget issue. So intent, in fact, the public agency has said it would sue rather than disclose to The Oregonian records of PERS beneficiaries whose retirement benefits exceed $100,000 a year.
The story of how PERS reached this point stretches back to August, about six weeks after Kulongoski pinpointed PERS as an agency in need of financial reform.
On Aug. 5, a reporter from The O formally requested a log of PERS beneficiaries with six-figure retirement incomes. PERS balked, saying the beneficiaries' right to privacy trumped the public's right to know how a small percentage of PERS beneficiaries earn more than twice the median household income for Oregonians in 2008. PERS also argued other financial institutions don't share details about their customers' money matters.
On Oct. 1, Deputy Attorney General Mary Williams overruled PERS's initial decision and ordered PERS officials to hand over the requested documents to The Oregonian promptly.
"The fact that Oregon law prohibits private financial institutions from disclosing the wide-ranging financial information it may obtain about its customers is not a basis for concluding that reasonable people will be highly offended if a public body paying them publicly funded benefits discloses the value of those benefits," Williams wrote in her 12-page decision.
But on Oct. 8, instead of complying with the order, Paul Cleary, executive director of PERS, wrote to the Oregon Department of Justice and said the agency would not only seek to block the release of the records in Marion County Circuit Court but it would seek outside counsel to help pursue its lawsuit.
If PERS does not prevail in its legal action, the public agency that provides benefits to 100,000-plus retirees will have to pay its own legal fees as well as The Oregonian's .
David Crosley, public information officer for PERS, says the agency can't discuss active litigation.
For now, the Rogue Desk suggests a new name for PERS—the Secret Employees Retirement System.