By Malia Mattoch McManus
HONOLULU (Reuters) - The city of Detroit may be facing a deepening financial crisis but that hasn't stopped four trustees of its public pension funds from spending $22,000 of retirement system funds to attend a conference in Hawaii this week.
The trip 4,500 miles west to a four-star resort on the world-famous Waikiki Beach in Honolulu doesn't sit well with the top officials now running Detroit's finances under an emergency order from the state of Michigan. Emergency Manager Kevyn Orr has not ruled out a bankruptcy as the city struggles under a $15 billion debt burden, which is being strained further by its hefty pension obligations.
"It especially doesn't look good when you have city employees, police, firefighters having taken pay cuts," said Bill Nowling, spokesman for Orr. "Middle-class, blue-collar workers, their dream vacation when they retire may be a two-week trip to Hawaii - they don't associate Hawaii with a place you go to work."
The four trustees from Detroit were among hundreds of pension officials from around the country who traveled in the past week to Honolulu for the annual convention of the National Conference on Public Employee Retirement Systems. Nowling said that Orr's team did not think they had the power to prevent the trip.
John Riehl, a senior sewage plant operator and 34-year Detroit employee, is one of the four. The cost fell within continuing education guidelines set by the legislature, he said.
"It's one of these things we trustees must do to stay on top of the field," Riehl said. "It's important that we participate in these conferences. The stakes are too high."
Of the three other trustees from Detroit, one declined to comment and two others could not be reached for comment.
NOT A VACATION
The two delegates from the Detroit Police and Fire Retirement System attended for business, not pleasure, the fund's spokesman Bruce Babiarz told Reuters. "These are intelligent folks there to do a job, not there to vacation."
The two trustees from Detroit's General Retirement System, including Riehl, attended because the knowledge gained "will assist them in prudently executing their fiduciary responsibilities/obligations," spokeswoman Andrea Kenski said in a statement.
Usually the conference captures little outside attention. This year, though, it has faced criticism for its choice of venue, the Hilton Hawaiian Village Waikiki Beach Resort with its five-acre salt-water lagoon, five swimming pools, and flamingos, penguins and turtles.
Some funds boycotted the event, saying it sent the wrong message, particularly at a time when many pension systems face funding shortfalls and the finances of the cities and states that sponsor them remain on shaky ground.
BOOKED BEFORE THE CRISIS
The criticism irks Hank Kim, the conference organizer's executive director.
"It was completely unfair," Kim said. "The coverage was, 'It's Hawaii.' It's blatantly inappropriate."
The decision to hold it in Hawaii was made before the financial crisis thrashed the portfolios of the nation's public pensions and raised continuing concerns about their long-term obligations, how to meet them and who should pay.
Last year, the group held the conference in New York, where room costs were nearly twice the Honolulu rate, Kim said.
Among those attending is Shawn Curry, a homicide detective and trustee for the $144 million Peoria Police Pension Fund in Illinois, who said it was cheaper than New York. "Our fund decided last year not to send anyone because the costs in New York were so high. When we looked at this year, there was so much of a cost savings we decided to come."
"The only negative is the airfare," said George Mitchell, chairman of Florida's Pompano Beach General Employees' Retirement System, with $139 million in assets. "The hotel is very reasonable and has everything you need, so you don't have rent a car and get everywhere in taxis."
Not everyone came on their fund's dime.
Michael Grodi, chairman of Michigan's $183 million Monroe County Employees Retirement System, attended thanks to a grant from the organizers because the fund would not cover the cost.
"The appearance was just not good," Monroe County Administrator Michael Bosanac said of the decision not to send Grodi at the fund's expense. "It doesn't conjure up the image of a hard-working conference."
"These are not junkets," Grodi countered. "We are getting educated to make decisions and have huge responsibilities."
Among the conference's sessions were panels to help reframe the pension funding debate and justify the assumptions that dictate funding levels, which have come under increasing scrutiny in recent years.
One well-attended session covered how to avoid front-page scandals. According to presenter Lydia Lee, a pension attorney from Oklahoma, the session touched on a topic familiar back in Detroit: The indictment this spring of two former city pension officials for an alleged $200 million bribery and kickback scheme, in a case that will come to trial next March.
(Writing additional reporting by Jim Christie in San Francisco; Editing by Dan Burns, Martin Howell and Claudia Parsons)