GFOA recommends that governments prefund their obligations for postemployment benefits other than pensions (OPEB) once they have determined that the employer has incurred a substantial long-term liability.1 In most cases, employers can make long-term investments to cover these obligations through a separate trust fund that should, over time, result in a lower total cost for providing postemployment benefits.
GFOA recommends creating a qualified trust fund to prefund OPEB obligations. To ensure that the trust is established and administered properly, governments should consult qualified legal counsel and fully understand the following issues:
- The legal authority of the employer to establish an OPEB trust and the forms of trust allowed.
- The employer’s legal obligations to provide benefits and the legal consequences of establishing a trust. This includes how to design trust documents that mitigate the risk of unintended liabilities and provide a way to dissolve or modify the trust, if that should become necessary.
- The comparative advantages of creating a single-employer trust, which is controlled by the employer and administered by either the employer or an independent board of trustees, versus participating in a multi-employer trust.
- Single-employer trusts. The following considerations should be addressed:
- Scope. Employers need to decide on the scope of the trust, subject to applicable federal and state law. Many OPEB trusts simply provide for the prudent investment of plan assets and perform no other administrative functions, except for disbursements, which can be handled by the trust or employer’s staff or a third-party administrator.
- Form and governance. There are three main options for the legal form of the trust and its governance structure. (Governance structure refers to the composition and responsibilities of the governing body and the process for overseeing investments.)2
- Voluntary employees’ beneficiary association (VEBA). A VEBA trust is established under section 501(c)(9) of the Internal Revenue Code (IRC) as an employees’ association to provide for designated benefits. VEBAs typically operate independently of the sponsoring employer and involve participants in their governance.
- Section 115 trust. An IRC section 115 trust is established as an integral part of a governmental entity that performs an essential government function. The plan sponsor’s governing body (for example, its city council or school board) is responsible for the jurisdiction’s single-employer 115 trust; an independent governance structure is not required but is sometimes provided for. If an independent governing body is not designated, an oversight committee should be formed. If the plan design includes employee contributions, the representation on the governing body can include employee and perhaps retiree participation.
- 401(h) trust. An IRC section 401(h) trust is a separate account, established within an existing qualified pension fund, which is dedicated to paying OPEB benefits. These trusts are usually for single employer arrangements, although some employers have access to a statewide plan. A 401(h) trust is governed by the pension board. A 401(h) trust must meet IRC requirements to avoid jeopardizing its tax-qualified status.
- Trust personnel. Public employers should establish the following fiduciary roles to assist in trust administration:
- Trust administrator. This individual, who may be a municipal official, is typically responsible for authorizing disbursements, carrying out the directives of the governing body, and other oversight tasks. An external vendor could also be named trust administrator, but not as the disbursement official (unless the vendor is engaged as a fiduciary under a separate third-party administrative contract).
- Custodian. The employer can appoint its customary custodian or a different firm selected expressly for the OPEB portfolio. If the trust is independent of the employer, the trust governing body will select the custodian. The custodian, typically a regulated bank trust organization, should be independent of the investment advisor, even if the trust holds mutual funds as its primary investment.
- Investment advisor. Employers with internal professional investment management staff may manage the trust’s investments internally, but most governing bodies outsource the investment management of VEBA and 115 trusts to an independent professional investment management organization. The governing body or the delegated oversight body can select an independent investment advisor through a separate contract, which is sometimes appended to the trust document. The governing body can retain either a discretionary advisor, which can make investment decisions within the parameters of the trust’s investment policy, or a non-discretionary advisor, which is similar to a pension plan consultant and requires pre-approval of investment decisions. A discretionary advisor is typically a named co-fiduciary, while a non-discretionary advisor leaves primary fiduciary responsibility with the trust’s oversight officials.
- Investment policy. Investment policies typically cover permitted investments and targets and ranges for asset allocations.3
- IRS issues. Governments must obtain an Internal Revenue Service (IRS) determination letter before creating VEBA or 401(h) trusts.4 Governments are not required to apply for an IRS private letter ruling5 when creating a section 115 trust, but they might wish to do so if the cost is not prohibitive.
- GASB issues. Trusts must conform to the Government Accounting Standard Board’s definition of “trust or equivalent arrangement” in GASB Statement No. 43, Financial Reporting for Postemployment Benefit Plans Other Than Pension Plans, to be sure the assets held in trust can be recognized as offsetting plan liabilities.6
- Fees. When selecting investment service providers – ideally through a comprehensive competitive selection process – governing bodies should evaluate full fee information and disclosures (i.e., of any potential conflicts or third-party compensation received from investment products or providers). Underlying investment costs such as mutual fund expenses should be included in this total cost evaluation. Service-provider costs, which are a legitimate trust expense, are usually lower if they are charged directly instead of through indirect compensation arrangements or retail investment products.
- Multilple employer trusts. These are turnkey programs in which a governmental entity, an intergovernmental organization, or a private firm has already established the trust’s investments and governance. The following considerations should be addressed when considering whether to participate in a multi-employer trust:
- Structural questions. The employer should review the trust’s legal documentation, trust structure, and governance. This includes tax considerations and whether the plan has received an IRS private letter ruling, which is imperative for multi-employer plans. Also consider other services provided by the trust, such as asset-liability analyses and disbursement services.
- Governance. The trust itself should provide processes for governance, oversight, and reporting, but a participating employer should establish its own processes for monitoring the performance of the trust and its investments, and reporting results and concerns to participants, senior management and the governing body. Also, any written complaints from current or prior trust participants should be investigated, and the trust should provide disclosures regarding other employers’ decisions to terminate or reduce participation.
- Third parties. The employer should examine the role of the external investment advisor or consultant, including all sources of compensation, along with the custodian’s affiliations and independence.
- Investment features. The employer should review the trust’s investment policy, asset allocation, portfolio composition, and investment expenses, including marketing fees, sample reports, and performance history.
- Portability. The employer should understand the requirements for moving assets out of the trust to another arrangement.
3 Smaller plans typically authorize investments in diversified mutual funds, preferably institutional share classes (which have lower fees) or commingled institutional trusts. Larger plans with sufficient portfolio balances might also include individual securities in their portfolios through separately managed accounts. The investment policy should also provide guidance regarding the employer’s preferences for active versus passive investment strategies. (Also see the GFOA best practices, Pension Investment Policies and Public Employee Retirement System Investments, noting that not all components of a pension investment policy will be applicable.)
6 GASB Statement No. 43 states that a trust or equivalent arrangement is one in which: 1) employer contributions are irrevocable; 2) assets are dedicated to providing benefits to retirees and beneficiaries in accordance with the terms of the plan; and 3) assets are legally protected from creditors of the employer or the plan administrator.