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The Informer: Healthcare, elections and pension funds

Now that the 2010 elections are decided - for the most part at least - the people we've sent to Albany are going to have to deal with the portentous problems boldly outlined in a recent report by E.J. McMahon, director of the Manhattan Institute's Empire Center for New York State Policy.

New York's total unfunded liability for public-sector retiree health insurance, a benefit not available to the vast majority of private-sector workers, comes to $205 billion, McMahon reported.

That's right, $205 billion with a B.

"The burden of retiree health care is clearly unsustainable and unaffordable," McMahon concluded.

Governments in the state, from the Big Apple to little Liverpool, spend billions annually on health insurance for retired employees. Unlike pensions, which are partly pre-funded through big investment pools, public-sector retiree healthcare comes out of annual budgets on a "pay-as-you-go" basis.

"But the expense of retiree health insurance - which accountants call Other Post-Employment Benefits or OPEB - is just the tip of a massive iceberg," McMahon wrote. "We're finally starting to learn the full, long-term cost of the public sector's retiree healt-hcare promises."

And it's not a pretty picture.

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Syracuse leads all New York cities with a combined-municipal OPEB liability $11,200 per capita, based on a total unfunded liability of nearly $1.6 billion for the municipal government and school district combined.

Syracuse, Buffalo, Niagara Falls and other fiscal struggling Upstate cities are facing the same kind of retiree legacy cost that crippled General Motors before its bankruptcy and takeover by the federal government last year.

Now guess who ends up paying for these currently "unfunded" contractual liabilities.

That's right: You, the taxpayer.

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After a decade in which the New York State pension fund's annual return on assets averaged less than half its target rate, McMahon wrote, the fund will need to jack up its taxpayer-funded contribution rates next year. Comptroller Thomas DiNapoli said the 2011-12 rate would rise from 11.5 percent of salary to 16.3 percent for members of the Employee Retirement System and from 18.2 to 21.6 percent for members of the police and Fire Retirement System.

Albany newscaster Elizabeth Benjamin, host of YNN's "Capital Tonight," called the public-sector retiree health insurance cost "New York state's hidden ticking time bomb."

If you can bear the bad news, check out nyfiscalwatch.com.

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