PERS Retirement Funding Prompts Creative Solutions

University of Oregon architecture students from a generation ago will remember the name Gil Farsnow. None will remember the elusive student, but all will remember his work. During terminal reviews, his work would be pinned on the walls along with other students’. He regularly offered solutions the other students hadn’t dared to consider.

One Gil Farsnow solution gets retold more than any other. The university’s science labs had a problem. Lumber trucks on nearby Franklin Boulevard were causing vibrations that disrupted ultra-sensitive microscopes and other devices. The university couldn’t relocate the lab building, so what design changes could address this problem?

Students studied seismic retrofits, hydraulic baffles, and lateral reinforcements. Farsnow offered none of those. He recommended the university drape the building’s north face, visible from Franklin, with a large movie screen. He then proposed that the university project onto that screen a continuous loop of pornography.

Farsnow reasoned that truck drivers would want to watch the movies, so they would drive past the university very, very slowly. Their reduced speed would curtail the vibrations enough that no other accommodations would be required. Problem solved!

Farsnow may have earned enough credits to graduate, but his refusal to ever be seen prevented him from graduating. I tracked him down in his basement apartment this week to see if he had any clever solutions for a seemingly unsolvable problem.

“Oregon courts have thrown out any substantial changes to tier one recipients of the Public Employee Retirement System,” I told him. “The proposed reforms were supposed to save the state $5 billion over 20 years, but the court said no.”

Farsnow was up on the topic. “They didn’t say no. They said ‘not yet.’ Bankruptcy remains an option. Only bankruptcy courts allow contracts to be renegotiated. If the state has money, it has to pay. The simplest solution would be to quickly run out of money. It worked for Detroit — why not here?”

“Bankruptcy seems like a terrible outcome. Can’t impending doom be enough?” I asked.

“Nope,” he told me. “Bankruptcy must be endured, not averted.”

“No state has ever gone bankrupt. Could we really do that?”

“Only one way to find out,” Farsnow replied. “Oregon likes trailblazing. Trouble is, a blaze can quickly grow into a wildfire. So I have a couple other ideas.”

I knew I had come to the right place, even if it was a disconcertingly dark place.

Farsnow continued. “This is impolite to say, but it’s now 3.6 million Oregonians against 331,000 PERS members. It’s us against them.”

“But I like them,” I pleaded. “Some of my favorite people are PERS recipients.”

“Do you want to solve the problem or not?” Farsnow snapped. “Just because we mail every PERS retiree a free case of cigarettes every week, that doesn’t mean they have to smoke them. That would be completely up to them. We could offer them free camping passes during fire season, PERS-only passing lanes on mountain roads, and special petting privileges at Oregon zoos before feeding times. Did you know a salami rope can make a fetching bolo tie?”

I could feel the basement getting even darker. “Gil, you’re frightening me. Could you dial it back a bit?”

He smiled. “Sure. Sell PERS-only lottery tickets. Make some special retiree a certified millionaire every week, but only after putting a couple million dollars first into our chronically underfunded schools. Or ask retailers to sell PERS-only extended warranties, with a good kickback to the state, of course. Let them give our state-supported elderly that special peace of mind that comes with a five-year replacement policy for the dustpan they’ll need while they’re cleaning up in retirement.”

I had to try to defend the retirees. “They worked hard for our state. We should treat them with respect,” I claimed.

“OK,” Farsnow relented. “But they won’t live forever. How about building PERS-only cemeteries on the avalanche-prone sides of some of our most majestic peaks? These plots would be expensive, but they would offer great views and unparalleled comfort — but only until the inevitable happens. Because it will.”

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Don Kahle (fridays@dksez.com) writes a column each Friday for The Register-Guard and blogs