Mapping Out A Crisis | News | Pittsburgh | Pittsburgh City Paper

Mapping Out A Crisis

Where do city pension dollars end up?

Pittsburgh, you may have heard, has a scary amount of debt. How scary? The city of Vallejo, Calif. went bankrupt in May -- and local economics guru Chris Briem says, "We're in a far worse situation than Vallejo is."

A big part of the problem is the city's pension fund. The city should have about $899 million to cover the cost of payments to retired police, firefighters and other municipal employees. Instead, it has only about one-third of that.

If the pension fund dries up, says Briem, a University of Pittsburgh researcher, "there will be a bigger and bigger hit on the annual operating budget."

No wonder Mayor Luke Ravenstahl is seeking state aid on the issue. Prospects for getting such help are uncertain: The only thing Briem says for sure is, "The pensioners are out there. They're expecting checks."

But where, exactly, are they?

City Paper obtained a list of the ZIP codes of every monthly check sent to retired Pittsburgh police, firemen, and municipal employees (which includes Public Works and other union workers). These payments cover retirees, employees on disability, and qualified widows and children -- a total of 4,461 households.

Suburbanites sometiemes act as if pension payments are just a city issue, but many pension benificiaries live next door. Every month, the city cuts almost $2 million in pension checks to police, fire and municipal retirees living in ZIP codes outside the city borders -- 30 percent of the total. (Payments to suburbanites are probably much larger; many ZIP codes include both city neighborhoods and nearby suburbs.)

If the city did tap its operative budget for pensions, tax money from Homewood, say, would be sent to Upper St. Clair -- where 14 former cops receive a total of more than $18,000 a month -- or even Denmark, where the city sends $899.53 each month.

All retirees are not the same. Active-duty cops are required to live in the city, but a sizable number leave once they retire. Roughly 40 percent of them (or their widows/widowers) live in ZIP codes outside the city. By contrast, only a quarter of municipal retirees leave town.

Within the city, police and firemen congregate most heavily in South Hills neighborhoods like Brookline and Overbrook. Municipal employees are most likely to live in the East End: The most popular ZIP code for those retirees is 15206, which covers East Liberty and nearby areas.

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