Facts are stubborn things, Mark Twain observed.
Perhaps that's why it's so hard to find a solution for Lexington's underfunded police and fire pension system. Through multiple mayors and council members, two task forces and endless computations, the facts have remained stubbornly stark, changing only for the worse.
Some of those facts:
■ The city hired police officers and firefighters, committing to provide pensions and medical care for them in retirement.
■ Each paycheck, these workers contribute 11 percent of their pay to the pension fund, while the city is supposed to contribute 17.51 percent to the fund.
■ The number of police and firefighters has risen, as has their pay. Total payroll went from $37 million in 1999 to $71 million this year, and the city's pension obligations have risen, too.
■ The city failed to make its full contributions to the system until recently.
■ Although the city is responsible for the fund, it has little control. The fund was established under state law and benefits are determined by the legislature and a local pension board, a majority of whose members are active or retired police and fire workers.
■ Under the authority of the pension board, Lexington police and fire receive disability retirement at a much higher rate than similar workers in other systems. For example, 38 percent compared to 8 percent for the state police.
The upshot is this:
■ The most solid estimate is the fund is over a half billion dollars short. That's equal to roughly twice the city's annual general fund budget.
It's important to add one more stubborn fact to this litany. That huge underfunding persists even though the city has issued bonds the last few years for over $137 million to catch up on its pension fund obligations, in addition to paying in $45 million in cash from the general fund.
Any long-term solution will involve some combination of new taxes, reduced benefits and changes in how the system is governed.
No one likes taxes, public safety workers don't want to see their benefits shrink, and changing the rules in the middle of the game will be complicated and controversial.
So, here's some advice for all parties as the administration tries to sort out a solution before the next legislative session in January.
To the mayor and council: Never forget that policemen and firefighters endanger their lives and their health to provide the most basic and essential city services. They are justifiably angry we've underfunded their pensions.
To police officers and firefighters: The city's underfunding isn't the only problem and city funding won't be the only solution. This mess has also grown out of the generous benefits you lobbied for in Frankfort and at the pension board. A stock market crash, combined with overly optimistic investment projections, also hurt. You'll have to compromise to assure you and future safety officers will have adequate pensions.
Many other workers have recently had to confront the reality that retirement is not going to be either as early or as comfortable as they once anticipated.
To our state legislative delegation: You have been part of creating this problem and now it's time to be part of the solution.
For Lexington taxpayers: You've enjoyed the security of excellent police and fire protection but you haven't paid the full price for it.
You should demand a true solution, not just pushing this problem onto another generation. But you will have to pay up eventually.