Williams: Belmont’s Unfunded Benefits Policy ‘No Longer Valid’, Town Must Restructure Debt Now

Photo: Selectman Jim Williams.

To the Belmontonian:

Some supporters have related that the “Belmont Street” is critical of the ideas I have put forth around the town’s management of its unfunded benefits obligations because it’s unlikely that I’ll be living in Belmont in 2026. While I have no idea as to whether we’ll be living in Belmont (or even living for that matter, but let that go), we all have some idea of the magnitude of the commitments Belmont has already made and is making to its employees and retirees. Also, we have some idea of how the town is currently managing these duties and my professional opinion is that the Belmont’s current policies and strategies are no longer valid based on what we know.

More specifically:

  • Town Counsel George Hall confirmed that the Belmont Retirement Board is responsible for managing the town’s pension obligation and manages that responsibility in part by determining how pension obligations are funded thru annual negotiations with the Board of Selectmen. The BOS then puts forward an annual warrant addressing the agreed funding schedule for review by the Warrant Committee and consideration by Town Meeting, which appropriates funding if agreed.  
  • The BOS is responsible for town’s pension policy and strategy. The same is true for OPEB policy and strategy albeit Town Treasurer Floyd Carman did propose and gain approval from past BOS administrations to set up and begin minimal funding the town’s OPEB Trust. So, the town treasurer is not responsible for benefits policies and strategies; the board is.
  • First Southwest, Inc. has not advised the current or past selectmen on town pension or OPEB policy or strategy and has not been formally engaged by the town to do so.

Given the above as background and because the financial and operating challenges Belmont faces over the next decade are unprecedented, the following are proposed for our consideration:

  • The status quo pension and OPEB strategies need to be addressed in the fiscal 2017 budget cycle and require our immediate attention.
  • The town can issue a Request for Proposal to engage a financial advisor to assist us in evaluating new strategies to meet our known benefits obligations. My recommendation is that the Town meet with the following firms: Stifle, Inc.; Kopelman and Paige PC; Seagal Group, Inc.; and FirstSouthwest, Inc.  
  • As a policy, Belmont should restructure its unfunded pension obligation amortization schedule by 1.) extending its maturity to 2035 using a straight line amortization schedule and 2.) structure a partial refunding (amount to be determined) by issuing a 20-year pension obligation bond to reduce near term cash outflow and extend the commitment.
  • As a policy, the town should undertake the funding of the Net Present Value of its current OPEB obligation estimate for the 30th year of the forecast using a discount rate of 7.75 percent annually going forward. This should be accomplished beginning in fiscal 2016 using funding from free cash flow.
  • Belmont should restructure its pension obligations and fund its resulting current obligations annually.

Mark Twain said: “Never make projections, especially about the future.” It would be so nice if we could use this idea as the basis for managing our benefits obligations, but we can’t because the cost of these long term commitments can be readily estimated as committed and they need to be funded annually with present value funding. If not, Belmont will end up with enormous obligations payable as we go forward, and this debt will beggar our operating, capital, and financial capabilities. 

It’s simply not fair to future Belmont generations which bring me back to the opening remarks of this opinion. It may be that the town might be better off if we all assume that we are not going to be around in 2026 because it draws attention to how unpredictable the future is and the need to take care of today’s business today.

Jim Williams

Belmont Selectman, Town Meeting Member