Tempers flare as Rhode Island retirees argue over pension reform

Reuters News
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Posted: May 21, 2015 5:56 PM

By Svea Herbst-Bayliss

PROVIDENCE, R.I. (Reuters) - Retired Rhode Island teachers, police officers and state workers traded barbs in court on Thursday over the state's public pension overhaul, with some criticizing colleagues for stopping their fight to recover lost benefits.

Anger erupted at a fairness hearing in Superior Court when Judge Sarah Taft-Carter allowed retirees to question witnesses about how an agreement was reached on the state's 2011 reform, one of the country's most far-reaching, at a time when many states struggled to rein in ballooning retirement costs.

"Do you remember me jumping on a chair at the meeting and shouting 'Roger, what's going on here?'" retired teacher James Bedell asked retired teacher Roger Boudreau, chairman of the 7,000 member Rhode Island Public Employees Retiree Coalition.

Boudreau said the deal "provided a degree of certainty for us," because many retirees might die if the lawsuit continued.

However, with only 1,100 of about 27,000 retirees voting to accept the deal, some questioned whether it accurately represented the wishes of members.

"These people are not listening to us," Bedell said in court.

He and his wife, Francesca, also a retired teacher, said the suspended cost of living adjustments shaved roughly $10,000 off their annual income, forcing them to sell their house and move onto a boat to save money as they search for cheaper housing.

"This affects our whole lives and has made Jim, who has cancer, sick and sicker. We need the money to pay for medical bills," Francesca Bedell said.

The pension overhaul, spearheaded by then Treasurer Gina Raimondo, who has since been elected governor, suspended cost of living adjustments and raised the retirement age, saving taxpayers some $4 billion and preserving the system for future retirees.

Unions sued but recently agreed to settle with the state. The agreement amends some provisions of the original reforms, which are already in effect, and must be accepted by Taft-Carter and passed by lawmakers before binding some 60,000 members in a state of roughly 1 million people.

Taft-Carter plans to allow 69 people to speak, and so-called objectors have written 250 letters about how the cuts are impacting their lives.

Retired teacher Marilyn DiStefano was widowed 21 years ago and took on significant debt to raise her two daughters.

"Because I'm a mathematician I planned very meticulously, but because of the cuts I'm not having the secure retirement I had planned on," she said.

(Reporting by Svea Herbst-Bayliss. Additional writing by Hilary Russ. Editing by Megan Davies and Andre Grenon)