How would you like it if every time you received a property tax bill from your county assessor, you also received a notice that disclosed the amount of the county’s total debt, annual operating expenses, total unfunded liability for pensions, and total unfunded liability for retirement healthcare?

You might not like it, but you’d have a better understanding of what all those property taxes are paying for. And in Marin County, back in 2013, after years of effort by a local group of activists – Citizens for Sustainable Pension Plans – that’s exactly what happened.

Take a look at the copy of this “2016-2017 Property Tax Information” courtesy of Marin County, sent to one of their property owning taxpayers. Towards the bottom of the page, in the section entitled “MARIN COUNTY DEBT AND FINANCIAL DATA,” even the casual observer can quickly see that (as of 6/30/2015, the numbers are over a year behind) Marin County recognizes $549 million of debt on their balance sheet. The not so casual observer might have additional questions…

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QUESTIONS RAISED BY “MARIN COUNTY DEBT AND FINANCIAL DATA”

For example, why does the total “Retiree Related Debt” of $746 million exceed the “Total Liabilities per Balance Sheet” of $549 million? While the 6/30/2015 Consolidated Annual Financial Report (CAFR) for Marin County does report total liabilities of $549 million on page 9, “Condensed Statement of Net Position,” there is no schedule anywhere in the remaining document that provides the details behind that number, making reconciliation impossible. A simple keyword search on the number “549” proves this.

Elsewhere in Marin County’s 6/30/2015 CAFR, on page 61 “Note 8: Long Term Obligations,” the balance payable on pension obligation bonds is disclosed at $103 million, which matches the amount disclosed on the property tax information. Since on this same chart in Marin County’s 6/30/2015 CAFR the “Total Long Term Obligations” are reported to be $286 million, it is reasonable to assume that Marin County’s non-retirement related debt is the difference, i.e., $176 million.

So what does this all mean to the non-casual observer?

It means that Marin County’s total long-term debt as of 6/30/2015 was $922 million, and $746 million of that was for earned but currently unfunded retirement obligations to county workers. That is, 81 percent – eighty-one percent – of Marin County’s long-term debt is to fulfill promises the supervisors made to provide pensions and healthcare to their retirees, but have not paid for. At 7%, just the annual interest on this $746 million is $52 million per year. Imagine what Marin County could do with an extra $52 million per year.

There’s more. The non-casual observer will note that just the interest on Marin County’s unfunded retirement obligations, $52 million per year, equates to 11.2% of their entire reporting operating expenses in the 2014-2015 fiscal year, $464 million. But Marin County doesn’t just have to pay interest on their unfunded retirement obligations, they have to pay them off.

In the private sector, compliant with reforms for which, inexplicably, public sector agencies are exempt, pension systems have to amortize (pay off) their unfunded liabilities within seven years. At that rate, at 7%, the payment on Marin County’s unfunded retirement liabilities would be $138 million per year. That would be the financially responsible thing to do.

Wait! There’s much more. After all, Marin County doesn’t have to just pay off their unfunded retirement obligations, they have to make ongoing payments, as a percent of payroll, for the future pension benefits their active employees earn every year they’re working. How much is that?

Learning how much Marin County spends on payroll is tough, even though it should not be. Their CAFR discloses costs per department, in some cases, but finding a simple “Total Costs for Employees” appears to be impossible.

Rather than wade through Marin County’s entire 224 page CAFR for FYE 6/30/2015, payroll information can be found on Transparent California. Going to their Marin County page and downloading the Excel spreadsheet readily reveals that in 2016 they spent $275 million on pay and benefits, roughly 60% of their total expenditures. Payments for benefits – mostly retirement but also for current healthcare – totaled $71 million of that. Needless to say, that $71 million is not nearly enough to pay for (1)  current healthcare insurance plus (2) currently earned pension and (3) retirement healthcare benefits, along with (4) any sort of aggressive paydown of the debt for retirement benefits earned in prior years, but not funded at the time. Even if you add in the amount employees themselves contribute via withholding (Information on that? Somewhere. Good luck finding it).

If you’ve made it this far, braving this mind numbing arcana that obfuscates one of the greatest betrayals of the people by their government in American history, let’s break this down just a bit further.

Even on a 30 year repayment schedule, at 7%, Marin County’s unfunded retirement debt of $746 million would require an annual payment of $60 million. Coming out of $71 million, that leaves $11 million to work with (plus whatever employees contribute via withholding), to pay (1) current healthcare insurance AND (2) whatever new retirement healthcare benefits were earned in that year, AND (3) whatever new pension benefits were earned in that year. This amount paid to fund pension benefits earned in the current year, called the “normal contribution,” is usually expressed as a percent of payroll. According to Transparent California, Marin County’s base payroll in 2016 was $186 million. That means that if they were making just the bare minimum payments on their unfunded retirement liabilities, their total payments for currently earned benefits – normal pension contribution plus normal OPEB contribution, plus current year healthcare, plus whatever other benefits they offer – only amounted to 6% of payroll. Only six percent! There is no way that difference was made up via employee contributions.

Based on these numbers, it appears impossible that Marin County is adequately funding retirement benefits for their employees. Not even close. And it should be easy to coax these numbers from the reports available, and it should be easy for anyone with a reasonable amount of financial literacy to find these numbers and come to the same conclusion. It is not.

RECOMMENDATIONS

(1)  Make a “Debt and Financial Data” disclosure mandatory on all property tax bills, in all California counties.

(2)  Have this data include the following twelve numbers, with the expense subtotals showing the percentage of total expenses, and the debt balance subtotals showing the percentage of total debt:

  • Total county expenditures,
  • Total county expenses for payroll and benefits,
  • Amount paid towards retirement healthcare (OPEB) earned in current year,
  • Amount paid towards unfunded retirement healthcare (earned in previous years),
  • Amount paid towards retirement pensions earned in current year,
  • Amount paid towards unfunded retirement pensions (earned in previous years),
  • Amount paid on pension obligation bonds,
  • Amount paid for all other debt,
  • Total debt,
  • Total debt for healthcare,
  • Total debt for pensions (unfunded pension liability),
  • Total debt for pension obligation bonds.

(3)  Include on county CAFRs for the same year a section that contains all of the above information, with a through reconciliation to the official financial statements and schedules, so even the casual observer can verify the accuracy (or at least the consistency) of all numbers reported on the property tax schedule.

REFERENCES

Marin County Board of Supervisors, 7/30/2013 Minutes (ref. item 3, page 1)
http://marin.granicus.com/MinutesViewer.php?view_id=33&clip_id=6714&doc_id=c40ad825-4c42-1031-bc96-29b50f2ba9d1

Marin County Board of Supervisors, Meeting Archives
https://www.marincounty.org/depts/bs/meeting-archive

Marin County Citizens for Sustainable Pension Plans
http://marincountypensions.com/index.html

Marin County 2015-2016 Consolidated Annual Financial Report
https://www.calpers.ca.gov/docs/forms-publications/cafr-2016.pdf

Marin County Archive of Consolidated Annual Financial Reports
https://www.marincounty.org/depts/df/financial-reports

Transparent California, 2016 salary and benefit payments for Marin County
http://transparentcalifornia.com/salaries/2016/marin-county/