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Newton alderman fights Las Vegas junket

Posted by Leslie Anderson  April 6, 2010 09:47 AM

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A Newton alderman has presented a resolution asking the city’s Retirement Board to reconsider its decision to use $5,000 in retirement funds to send two members to a conference next month in Las Vegas.

‘‘We consider this a way to remind the Retirement Board that things are as tight right now as they have ever been,’’ said Ward 4 Alderman at-large Leonard Gentile, whose motion last week has been referred to the Finance Committee.

‘‘People are losing their jobs, our cafeteria workers are in danger, because people are doing everything they can to save money. Two people taking a trip to Las Vegas flies in the face of that. Let’s use some common sense.’’

The Retirement Board’s 3-2 vote last month drew scrutiny from Mayor Setti Warren, who has placed a ban on city workers traveling out of state for conferences in light of unfavorable economic conditions.

Warren acknowledged at the time that he had no authority over Retirement Board members, but asked that they use the city’s retirement money judiciously.

But some board members said their decision had been mischaracterized. Kimberly Fletcher, who voted with the majority, said last month that the trip would be covered not by taxpayer money but by the board’s expense fund, ‘‘which is the return on our investments.’’

The Las Vegas conference is scheduled for May 2 through May 6.

A number of in-state conferences on retirement investment are planned this year, including one at Harvard University run by the National Conference of Public Employee Retirement Systems, the same organization running the Las Vegas conference.

Other conferences in Massachusetts will be run by the Massachusetts Association of Contributory Retirement Systems and the Public Employee Retirement Administration Commission.

‘‘We have issued a memorandum telling retirement boards to be prudent right now,’’ said Joe Connarton executive director of PERAC. ‘‘We have had a travel restriction in place in our office for the past two years.’’

Connarton said that one member of his organization, which oversees Bay State retirement boards, will also be attending the Las Vegas conference — but that he will be paying his way out of his own pocket.

Such a decision is also an option for the members of Newton’s board going to the conference, as Retirement Board chairman Nunzio Piselli and comptroller David Wilkinson reminded board members in a memorandum they circulated after the vote.

The memo stated, ‘‘Trustees who believe that they will obtain significant value from attending conferences and education programs that involve substantial out of state travel costs always have the option of using all or a portion of their annual stipend to defray the cost of attendance.’’

Wilkinson, who is a voting member of the Retirement Board and voted against the Las Vegas trip, said that he felt the level of scrutiny the board had received was appropriate.

‘‘Even though, legally, the board still has fiscal autonomy over all its funds, the same resources fund retirement as fund all other city services,’’ Wilkinson said. ‘‘Five thousand dollars may be a drop in the bucket, but it’s still money that could be used for other purposes.’’

Currently, the mayor’s office is working on the city’s 2011 budget, where it is estimated half of the city’s general fund revenue growth, or about $14.7 million, will go toward pension funding. That’s an increase of $1.688 million from last year.

‘‘In two weeks we’ll know better where we stand,’’ said Bob Rooney, Newton’s chief operating officer. ‘‘But all across the state, public pensions have suffered with the economy. If something doesn’t change soon, municipalities are going to be in tough shape.’’

Sarah Thomas can be reached at sarah.m.thomas@gmail.com.

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