Are Counties Major Players In Public Pension Plans?

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Most analyses of public pension plans focus on states and cities, while comparatively less has been written about the role of counties. Counties act primarily as the administrative arms of state governments, but in some states they are significant public service providers.

This brief discusses the nature and role of counties in the state government structure and closely examines pension activity at the county level. It documents costs, funded statuses, and unfunded liabilities to determine whether counties should be included regularly in analyses of state and local government pensions. Key findings include:

  • While the majority of county employees participate in state pension plans, counties in 22 states sponsor their own plans;
  • County pension costs, which include contributions to plans they administer and to state-run plans they participate in, equal 4.8 percent of their revenues;
  • The plans sponsored by counties are about 75 percent funded, slightly higher compared to other governmental entities; and
  • Overall, counties hold 12 percent of unfunded public pension liabilities, indicating that — with a few exceptions — they play a modest role in the pension world.
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