Please note that Cincinnati Retirement board member Mike Rachford had a change in heart and also a change in mind as evidenced by the second article in this email. I wonder if STRS will have any board members attending either one of these upcoming retirement conferences and, if so, what will be the tab at a time when our system is in difficult times? John
Cincinnati pension chief: Trustee's plans for swanky trips look bad
In government, perception is as important as reality, sometimes more so.
The latest test case of that axiom: Cincinnati Retirement System trustee Mike Rachford, who later this year plans to attend conferences at swanky resorts in Hawaii and Las Vegas - with taxpayer dollars covering a large part of the tab.
Public relations-wise, the timing of the trips could scarcely be worse.
In 2008, the retirement fund that Rachford and 10 other board members oversee plummeted $854 million, and though it bounced back slightly last year, its long-term outlook remains so shaky that City Hall may have to sell assets - land, buildings, parking garages, among others - to avoid insolvency.
Even so, Rachford, a $53,000-a-year auto mechanic crew chief for the city, recently told retirement fund administrators that he plans to attend the Hawaii and Las Vegas conferences, public records obtained by The Enquirer show.
The only trustee to date who has made travel requests for this year, Rachford also informed city staff via e-mail that he would like to stay in a deluxe $270-a-day oceanfront room in Hawaii – $81 more than a standard room – and planned to take along a female guest.
The retirement system does not cover guest's expenses, so his companion will be traveling at his expense, city officials said. And under board travel policies, if Rachford wants to gaze at the Pacific from his room, he will have to pick up that extra expense, too.
Rachford may not have been thinking about appearances when he put in the trip requests, but the point was not lost on the city officials who received them.
Although the price of the two trips - likely to be less than $5,000 combined - is inconsequential compared to the city's $2 billion retirement fund, the key question does not revolve simply around cost, said pension system executive director Paula Tilsley.
"It just doesn't look right," Tilsley said. "We've got a serious problem and the only way we're going to solve it is to start watching every dollar. How it appears - that's the issue."
Former City Councilman John Cranley highlighted the same point in December 2008 when he made a failed attempt to persuade the retirement board trustees to eliminate their $60,000 travel budget for 2009.
"It's something we should do, not because it will save a lot of money, but because it will be a symbolic move on our part that shows we're sensitive to the tough times," said Cranley, who as council's Finance Committee chairman then served on the retirement system's board. "Given the climate we're in, it's an important gesture."
Cranley's proposal, however, did not even get seconded to proceed to a vote.
Trustees' trips are paid for by the retirement system, to which the city contributes tens of millions of dollars annually. City employees' payroll contributions also flow into the pension fund.
Trustees are not paid for their service on the retirement board, but are reimbursed for expenses. As a result, over the years, trips to pension industry conventions have come to be seen, particularly by skeptics who question the board's stewardship, as a reward - one that some see as increasingly difficult to justify amid a recession.
While trade conventions offer opportunities for attendees to enhance their job skills, they also have long been seen as more of a junket than a continuing education experience. That is especially true when the events are held in tourist meccas such as Hawaii and Las Vegas.
Rachford did not return a call for comment.
The Las Vegas event that he plans to attend from May 2-6 is the National Conference on Public Employee Retirement Systems. The convention will be held at the Wynn Las Vegas, and attendees will receive a special room rate of about $200 per night.
Six months later, Rachford will be in Honolulu from Nov. 13-18 for the International Foundation of Employee Benefit Plans' annual conference.
Via e-mail, he told the retirement board staff that his hotel preference was a $270 deluxe ocean view room at the Hilton Hawaiian Village - his second choice was a $290 ocean view at the Moana Surfrider.
In response, Tilsley reminded trustees that board policy permits reimbursement only for standard rooms. The view-driven price gap at the Moana Surfrider is $75 per night, similar to the difference at the Hilton.
Differences in city and board travel policies, Tilsley said, contributed to the issue arising at all. While budget difficulties have led the city to freeze all travel deemed unnecessary, the retirement board still operates under guidelines that encourage trustees to attend pension industry conventions.
Tilsley hopes to bring the board's policy more in line with the city's rules. In another e-mail, though, Rachford suggested that the trustees develop and follow their own travel guidelines, "which would make more sense."
It doesn't make more sense to Tilsley or other top city administrators.
"That's not going to happen," she said. "We need a policy that meets the board's needs but that also recognizes the situation we're in and that we can defend. A lot of it comes down to common sense."
and now....the latest re. Mr. Rachford...........
Mike Rachford, the Cincinnati Retirement System board member who wanted to go to a conference in Hawaii and get an oceanview room there, has changed his plans.
He was able to get back the money he put down on the trip, he said in an e-mail to other board members, and canceled his reservation. He had asked to stay in a $270 a night oceanfront room in Honolulu, a request that drew criticism since the board and a pension task force are struggling to come up with ways to keep the retirement fund solvent.
Rachford is still going to a meeting in Las Vegas.