Galveston, Texas When county employees in Galveston, Texas, learned 25 years ago that Social Security could be in trouble, they took a gamble on their retirement and opted out of the federal system.
Ray Holbrook, a retired county judge who promoted the alternative to Social Security in 1980, acknowledged he didn't hit the jackpot with the private plan, which later was adopted in neighboring Brazoria and Matagorda counties.
But Holbrook and others maintain it is possible to retire more comfortably with their plan than with Social Security. Holbrook sees his county's plan, which allows workers to invest a portion of their income in annuities and bonds, as a model for the privatization of Social Security.
As President Bush travels the country trying to sell voters on his proposal to allow younger workers to invest some of their Social Security payroll taxes in the stock market, about 5 million Americans in government jobs already rely on retirement plans other than Social Security.
Some swear by those plans. Others question their value.
The three Texas counties are among a small number of state and local governments around the country that opted out of Social Security for government employees or never joined up at all, like Massachusetts and Ohio.
The Galveston plan operates something like a 401(k): County employees in Galveston contribute 6.2 percent of their salary to the plan, with the county matching that amount plus as much as one additional percentage point. A private firm manages the employees' accounts and picks the annuities and bonds, which generally are not as risky as stocks. The plan also provides disability and life insurance.
Richard Gornto, president of First Financial Benefits Inc., which administers and designed the Galveston plan, estimates his plan offers an employee who works 37 years at an average of $25,596 a year a monthly benefit of $1,250, versus $669 from Social Security. An employee who worked the same amount of time, but earned $75,000, would get $3,663 a month, compared with $1,301 on Social Security, he said.
The Social Security Administration analyzed the Galveston plan in 1999 and found:
l The Galveston plan is not indexed annually to inflation like Social Security to maintain beneficiaries' purchasing power. Gornto said the monthly benefits in his plan were so much higher than Social Security that the inflation adjustments do not matter.
l The ability to withdraw funds from the private plan before retirement could leave a person short on earning after he retires. Gornto said the Galveston plan no longer allows withdrawals.
l Workers with higher salaries and no children do better on the private plan; lower earners and those with children tend to do better on Social Security. Holbrook said the private plan's average rate of return is higher than the Social Security Administration figured.
Evelyn Robison, for one, said she would have fared better on Social Security. Robison worked in Galveston County for four decades, including 13 years as the county's district clerk. She enrolled in the Galveston plan the day it began, and retired last year.
Robison said she receives about $640 a month, in part because she withdrew some of her benefit while she was still working. She said she would have gotten more than $1,000 a month had she remained in Social Security. Workers are not allowed to withdraw money from Social Security.
"I personally don't know anyone that has lived to retire that is in better shape with the alternate plan than they would have been in if they stayed in Social Security," she said.
Robison said the plan would have been a great addition to Social Security but is not an adequate replacement. A separate retirement plan for county and state employees keeps her afloat, she said.
"That shouldn't be what retirement is about, to have to worry whether you are going to be able to pay your light bill this month or pay for your groceries," she said. "I am afraid that has happened for some people."
Eric Kingson, a professor of social work at Syracuse University who has studied the Galveston plan, said he sees some problems. He said it is possible for retired workers to outlive their benefits, and the plan does not cover children who would qualify for Social Security benefits.
"We have essentially a privatization experiment and it doesn't work very well, not if you think Social Security should provide basic protections to all American workers," he said.
Gornto said the Galveston plan gave workers more control over their retirement than Social Security. He said there was a direct correlation between what a person invests in the plan and what they receive upon retirement.
Greg White, who has worked for the Galveston County Sheriff's Department for 23 years, said he plans to retire in 2009 in his late 40s. He said he was pleased with the alternative plan and thought it offered a safe alternative to Social Security.
"I know my money is there. I know I am going to be better off," he said. "I don't worry about it."