How Placer County Privatized Inmate Food Services

Introducing competition to the public sector is an essential part of delivering cost-effective services to taxpayers. What happened earlier this year in Placer County is just one example of how millions of savings can be realized by privatizing a public service. By replacing county employees with a private firm to provide inmate food services to county inmates and juvenile offenders, starting in 2018 Placer County will save over $600,000 per year. Here is how these savings can be realized:

1 – Give Agency Authority to Outsource: Ensure that your agency has the authority to contract for government services. The Placer County Charter has a provision under “general powers” that states as follows: “The Board may contract with an independent contractor to provide any services required of, or performed by, the county if it is more economical to do so.”

2 – Conduct Cost Analysis: Placer County engaged in a comprehensive analysis of the cost and benefit of continuing to use county employees to provide inmate food services vs. using outside private contractors. This process was conducted concurrently with taking bids from qualified contractors.

3 – Enact Resolution and Award Contract: On March 7, 2017 the Placer County Board of Supervisors awarded a five-year, $13.2 million contract with Aramark Correctional Services.

Making changes like this impact existing county employees, but to mitigate this, Placer County obtained an assurance from Aramark that all county employees interested in working with the contractor will be interviewed. In addition, arrangements were made for staff who do not transition to Aramark to receive assistance from the county’s Human Resources department and Business Advantage Network, to provide job training and assist county employees in identifying other job opportunities.

What Placer County has done with inmate food service they can do elsewhere. In early 2016, the county issued a request for proposals to evaluate other service delivery options. By making judicious use of the option to outsource public services to private contractors, public agencies can realize significant direct savings. But merely the deterrence value of the outsourcing option can be valuable for a public agency. When public employee unions know that their employers have the option of turning to a private contractor, they will be more reasonable in their negotiations.

REFERENCES

Charter of the County of Placer
Article III General Powers, Sec. 302 Duties, Part (h) Contracting for Services:
“The Board may contract with an independent contractor to provide any services required of, or performed by, the county if it is more economical to do so.”
http://qcode.us/codes/placercounty/view.php?topic=charter_of_the_county_of_placer-charter-iii-302&frames=on

Press Release – Placer County
“Placer opts to shift inmate food service to private contractor”
https://www.placer.ca.gov/news/2017/march/correctional_food

Meeting Agenda – Placer County Board of Supervisors
Agenda for March 7th, 2017 Board Meeting including resolution to privatize correctional food services
http://www.placer.ca.gov/upload/bos/cob/documents/sumarchv/2017/170307A/bosa170307.htm

Memorandum – Placer County Board of Supervisors
Cost analysis of privatizing correctional food services – March 7th
http://www.placer.ca.gov/upload/bos/cob/documents/sumarchv/2017/170307A/04A.pdf

Tips for Negotiating with Public Sector Unions

You’ve just been elected to the city council. You’re 34 years old and you’ve been attending your city council meetings for almost a decade. You’ve served on some civic improvement commissions. You’ve been a concerned activist for most of your life. But the firefighters union contract is being renegotiated this year, and you’re about to go behind closed doors and negotiate.

On the other side of the table are your respected friends who have protected your town for as long as you can remember. But their union is part of a national organization that wields tremendous financial and political power. And sitting across that table, alongside your friends who run the local fire department, are seasoned professionals who have been involved in labor negotiations for their entire careers. You are outgunned. What do you do?

This scenario has played out across California, especially in the smaller cities and counties and school districts. The elected officials charged with managing these smaller jurisdictions work part-time, for little or no pay. They negotiate with career professionals whose unions often are the largest single source for the campaign contributions that got them elected, or can get them defeated in the next election. The result of this situation is that government unions have a huge advantage in contract negotiations. For all practical purposes, they often run these smaller towns and school districts. What do you do?

Here are a few suggestions that can help make a difference:

1 – Use Outside Negotiators:

They will provide greater expertise in the subject matter, they will already know proven negotiation strategies, they will readily understand the contract language, and they offer a valuable independent, third-party perspective.

Of course it isn’t always necessary to hire an outside negotiator, it depends on the complexity of the negotiations and it depends on the financial impact of the contract. If it affects a large percentage of your budget, it makes more sense to hire an independent negotiator.

If you decide to hire an outside negotiator, you also have to be sure you are in compliance with existing codes and state law. Here is sample language to insert into a resolution to hire an outside negotiator:

OUTSIDE NEGOTIATOR – SAMPLE LANGUAGE

The use of an outside negotiator shall apply to all formal meet and confer processes undertaken pursuant to the Meyers-Milias-Brown Act, where either a recognized employee organization or the city, through their respective representatives propose 1) significant changes to contract terms, 2) extensions, or 3) when the employee association negotiates with third party negotiators or legal counsel.

In an effort to avoid inherent conflicts of interest, if an outside negotiator is deemed necessary, the principal representative negotiating on behalf of the city shall, 1) not be an employee of the city, 2) not be a member of any public pension plan under the city, and 3) have a demonstrated expertise in negotiating labor and employment agreements on behalf of municipalities. The city council shall designate one or more management level employees to be present during negotiations and to assist the principal negotiator as the city council and/or principal negotiator deem appropriate.

2 – Have an Independent Auditor Analyze the Fiscal Impact:

The first step is to get complete factual information in order to perform an economic analysis of the contract. Here are factors to consider:

Get an actuarial analysis: Preparing and providing an economic analysis of the short and long term costs of every term and condition of employment in the contract is the first way to ensure that 1) city council members have the best data available in front of them to negotiate and make a decision, and 2) the public has the appropriate data to vet the contract and the Council’s proceedings. If these negotiations affect pension benefits in any way, the economic analysis should include both the funded and unfunded actuarial liability that would or may ensue from adoption of the contract.

Use an independent auditor: This will allow city council members, staff, and the
public to benefit from the general level of confidence provided by a thorough and
reliable economic analysis by an external professional. Information from outside auditors should be used in conjunction with information from staff whenever practical.

Make sure the economic analysis includes tangible comparisons: The economic analysis of each term and condition of the contract can and should be viewed in the framework of how it will affect the citizens. Also, utilize tangible examples of comparisons with other programs. For instance, if a contract will cost the city X amount of dollars, contextualize it to show that X amount of dollars is equal to a specific city service or program.

Invest in staff training so they can also perform economic analysis: In addition to the use of an independent auditor, city human resources professionals need the proper resources and training to provide and analyze an economic analysis.

Provide for public review of the proposed new contract: The City should consider making the fiscal impacts of the contract available to the public and the City Council at least two (2) City Council meetings prior to consideration by the City Council of an initial meet and confer proposal.

INDEPENDENT AUDITOR – SAMPLE LANGUAGE

An independent auditor, a certified public accountant, or an actuarial accountant, shall prepare a study and supplemental data upon which the study is based, that identifies the fiscal impacts attributed to each term and condition of employment made available to the members of all recognized employee organizations.

The first analysis shall be of existing contract costs and of each thereafter.
The above report and findings of the independent auditor shall be completed and made available for review by the city council and the public at least two (2) City Council meetings before consideration by the city council of an initial meet and confer process.

The above report shall be regularly updated by the independent auditor to itemize the cost and the funded and unfunded actuarial liability which would or may result from adoption or acceptance of each meet and confer proposal. These measurements shall display the fiscal impacts of the employee association and or/city proposals. The report shall be prepared to include all benefit and pay aspects of each MOU, and shall include written council member acknowledgement that the report has been read and considered by the signing councilmember.

3 – Consider Transparent Discussion of Offers and Counteroffers

California’s current open meeting laws provide that a City Council can meet in closed session to provide its bargaining unit representatives with instructions and parameters for negotiation in the meet and confer process. Closed sessions allow City Councils to speak privately regarding their bargaining parameters without disclosing these parameters to labor representatives.

Additionally, the meet and confer process provides the opportunity for city representatives and labor representatives to bargain in good faith in order to reach an agreement on the proposed labor contract. Here are factors to consider:

Report the Facts: Transparency may result in more realistic counters or counteroffers. Broad dissemination of offers and counteroffers provides a progress report and clearer understanding for both the public and bargaining unit members.

Exercise discretion: Disclosure of offers and counteroffers may result in additional public posturing and increased politicization, which can affect negotiations. All parties involved in negotiations should use caution and clear communication when reporting out of closed session.

TRANSPARENCY – SAMPLE LANGUAGE

The city council shall report out the details of all formal offers that have been rejected at the time of the counteroffer rejecting each proposed term. City council labor negotiators shall have the duty to advise the city council during any closed session of all offers, counteroffers, information, and/or statements of position discussed by the labor negotiators taking place in the meet and confer process since the last such closed session.

4. Require Disclosures of Private Communications

Having city council members disclose communication contacts that were had with any labor representative is another way to bring transparency to the negotiation process and to build faith with the public. A careful value judgment can be made to what type of conversation is appropriate to report to the public. Factors to consider:

Disclose communications: While this principle may be contentious for some city council members, it can be viewed as a disclosure requirement, not a “no-deal” requirement. The communication that is disclosed may simply be that the conversation occurred.

Consider the impact on the process: There is some historical context that private meetings, without the disclosure of names, have been the environment needed to reach an agreement. However, a balance can be found to reconcile transparency with private communications. If a council member is going to meet with the employee group they should remember their closed session obligations and just listen. Council members that talk to employee groups outside of formal negotiations may undermine the negotiation process.

Preserve the ongoing relationship: All parties should approach the process in a respectful and sensitive way that will assist in building long-term working relationships that survive the sometimes difficult negotiation process.

DISCLOSURE – SAMPLE LANGUAGE

Each city council member shall disclose both publicly and during closed sessions, the identity of any and all employee association representatives with whom the city council member has had any verbal, written, electronic or other communication(s) regarding a subject matter of a pending meet and confer process.

5 – Allow Time for Public Comment

Disclosing the MOU and making it subject to more than one (1) city council meeting provides the opportunity for the public to effectively weigh in on the matter. Factors to consider:

MOU negotiations should have time for public comment consistent with other ordinances: 1st and 2nd readings at City Council meetings is standard practice for normal ordinances, and this seeks to put labor negotiations under that standard.

Be sure to get the timing right: Cities must remain in compliance with AB 537 (Chapter 785, Statutes of 2013)3 which requires that if a tentative agreement is reached by the authorized representative of a City and a recognized bargaining unit, the city council must vote to accept or reject that agreement within thirty (30) days of 1st consideration at a noticed public meeting.

PUBLIC COMMENT – SAMPLE LANGUAGE

Any agreed upon memorandum of understanding shall be introduced for first reading at a regular city council meeting and presented for approval at the next regular city council meeting in the same manner as a the first and second reading of an ordinance.

REFERENCES

To read Assembly Bill No. 537 (Chapter 785, Statutes of 2013) please click the following link:  http://www.leginfo.ca.gov/pub/13-14/bill/asm/ab_0501-0550/ab_537_bill_20131013_chaptered.htm

ACKNOWLEDGEMENTS

These suggestions were originally crafted by a committee of experienced local elected officials, city staff and thought leaders through a policy committee at the Association of California Cities -Orange County.

 

 

It’s time for your community to create a municipal audit

The San Diego District Attorney last week charged John Collins with misuse of hundreds of thousands of dollars over several years as superintendent of Poway Unified School District.

The allegations would be shocking if they weren’t so common. In Placentia, Bell, Compton, Pasadena, Beaumont, and elsewhere, California cities have needlessly lost millions, and for a time, nobody knew. Accounting is boring. Until it isn’t. Just as the devil is in the details, the financial fate of public agencies is buried in the numbers.

Whether it’s via corruption or incompetence, without vigilant oversight, millions can be lost. Even in wealthy suburban cities with surplus funds, it’s still necessary to verify that internal controls are in place. In larger cities with limited funds and urgent needs for public services, it’s even more important. No matter what sort of city you live in, things can go terribly wrong.

If you’re a concerned citizen or an elected official charged with responsible management of your city’s finances, the annual audit can be extremely helpful. But instead of bringing in a CPA firm merely to verify the balances on your financial statements, you have an opportunity to do much more. Here are some ideas for getting the most out of your audit.

One recommendation, coming from Linda Lindholm, who served for fourteen years on the city council of Laguna Niguel and was mayor twice, is to change audit firms every five years. Let them know when they’re hired that it will be for a five year engagement. This policy helps ensure against the slight but very real possibility that an overly cozy relationship might develop between members of the city’s permanent staff, and the audit partners. A firm that is on a limited term of engagement will have far less motivation to smooth over bad news to keep the account.

Lindholm also recommended keeping an arms-length relationship with the auditors throughout the audit process. Once they’ve been given their instructions, as a matter of policy, council members should leave them alone until their report is completed. This prevents any elected official from attempting to influence the auditors.

So what more should a city have their auditors do, beyond just checking over the financial reports? To answer this we talked with several public accountants who have audited local agencies. Rich Kikuchi, a managing partner at LSA CPAs, makes the distinction between a “financial audit” and an “internal audit,” where the internal audit, or “watchdog audit,” represents this extra work. Other people we spoke with viewed this process as an extension of the normal audit. Some called it a “secondary audit.” Whatever it is called, here are a few of the specific things an elected official can instruct their auditors to add to their regular annual work:

  • Are funds being spent in compliance with the terms of the grants under which they were awarded?
  • Are what are the terms of capital improvement bonds, interest rate, payout timeline, use of funds?
  • Are there any irregularities in city investments?
  • Are the city’s employee payroll and benefits records consistent with what the city council authorized?
  • Are there always two signatures on all outgoing checks from the city?
  • Are all transfers in and out of the city’s bank accounts consistent with authorized city budgets?

Remember. Not boring. Millions of dollars of taxpayers money can be lost when questions like these aren’t proactively answered. In larger cities, hundreds of millions.

Depending on how much extra work auditors get assigned, the added costs to the CPA firm can add up. But often these additional fees are not significant when the work is performed at the same time as the auditors are on-site anyway to do their conventional audit. And of course if these auditors end up uncovering a significant problem in the course of this extra work, the savings realized by solving the problem could dwarf what it cost to get it discovered.

Another tip: When elected officials meet with the audit firm to identify and assign additional work, sometimes it makes sense to keep the additional assignments confidential. If a cover-up is occurring, there’s no benefit in announcing to staff where the extra scrutiny is going to fall.

California’s cities and counties face unprecedented financial challenges. The obvious one, mandatory payments to the pension systems that increase every year, is not going away. Other budget items that may have been neglected such as maintenance and upgrades of roads and other public works, eventually have to be faced, possibly at great cost. The last thing your city needs is to see money being wasted through misuse of funds. Especially when there is an annual opportunity to dig deep, expose the problem, and save that money.

References:

State Controller’s Office, Internal Control Guidelines for Local Agencies, 2015 (Betty Yee)
http://www.sco.ca.gov/Files-AUD/2015_internal_control_guidelines.pdf

“Watchdog Audit” Checklist – courtesy of LSA CPAs:

Public Safety
– Cash receipting/fee schedule
– Purchasing – ordering/receiving – approval
– Invoice approval
– Credit card use
– Budget monitoring
– Inventory control
– Fuel usage
– Fleet management
– Capital asset controls – purchasing/receiving/observation & inspection
– Payroll – timekeeping & review procedures
– Grant management (application, award, reporting, compliance, communication, G/L tracking)
– IT & systems analysis
– Revenue and expenditure accrual – period end reporting
– Cost allocations
– Customer complaints
– Other significant revenue sources

Community Development/Planning
– Inspections
– Permitting process and fee determination
– Revenue recognition & accounting for deposits
– Segregation of duties and supervision
– Use of City vehicles & fuel usage
– Cash receipting/fee schedule
– Purchasing – ordering/receiving/ – approval
– Invoice approval
– Credit card use
– Budget monitoring
– Capital asset controls – purchasing/receiving/observation & inspection
– Payroll – timekeeping & review procedures
– Grant management (application, award, reporting, compliance, communication, G/L tracking)
– IT & systems analysis
– Revenue and expenditure accrual — period end reporting
– Housing compliance and monitoring
– Review of any management companies used including controls, compliance, monitoring
– Child development program
– Cost allocations
– Customer complaints
– Other significant revenue sources

Parks & Recreation
– Cash receipting / fee schedule
– Revenue recognition & deposits accounting Class/event enrollment procedures
– Purchasing – ordering / receiving – approval Invoice approval
– Credit card use
– Credit card procedures & online payments Budget monitoring
– Inventory control
– Capital asset controls — purchasing/receiving/observation & inspection
– Payroll — timekeeping & review procedures
– Grant management (application, award, reporting, compliance, communication, G/L tracking) IT & systems analysis
– Revenue and expenditure accrual — period end reporting
– Use of City vehicles & fuel usage
– Cost allocations
– Customer complaints
– other significant revenue sources

Public Works
– Capital project controls
– Developer agreements
– Purchasing – ordering / receiving – approval
– Invoice approval Credit card use
– Budget monitoring
– Inventory control
– Land management
– Street management
– Cash flow
– Long-term expenditure planning and capital asset replacement/maintenance on major assets
– Fuel usage
– Fleet management
– Capital asset controls — purchasing/receiving/observation & inspection, fair value assessment/Developer contributed assets
– Payroll — timekeeping & review procedures
– Grant management (application, award, reporting, compliance, communication, G/L tracking)
– IT & systems analysis
– Revenue and expenditure accrual — period end reporting
– Segregation of duties and supervision
– Revenue recognition & accounting for deposits
– Cost allocations
– Customer complaints
– other significant revenue sources
– Debt compliance

Golf Course, Theatre (other enterprise activities managed by 3rd party)
– Management company compliance, report preparation & management fee verifications
– Fee schedule
– Cash receipting, revenue recognition (all revenue sources)
– Purchasing – ordering / receiving – approval
– Expenditure reporting
– Financial controls over accounting
– Cash & reconciliation procedures
– Financial period close & reporting
– Interim & monthly reporting
– Communication with the City
– City oversight
– Inventory control
– Capital asset controls — purchasing/receiving/observation & inspection
– Segregation of duties and supervision
– IT & systems analysis
– Credit card procedures
– City oversight
– Budget development and monitoring
– Debt/lease management
– Cost allocations Customer complaints
– other significant revenue sources

Water, Sewer, Electric Utilities
– If applicable -Management company compliance, report preparation & management fee
– Billing
– Fee schedule
– Capital project controls
– Long-term expenditure planning and capital asset replacement/maintenance on major assets
– Fuel usage
– Fleet management
– Capital asset controls — purchasing/receiving/observation & inspection, fair value assessment/Developer contributed assets
– Review of accounting operations
– Financial period close & reporting
– Interim & monthly reporting
– Communication with the City
– Inventory control
– Segregation of duties and supervision
– Budget development and monitoring
– Credit card procedures & online payments
– Credit card use
– Cash receipting, revenue recognition (all revenue sources)
– Cash receipting / fee schedule
– Purchasing – ordering / receiving – approval Invoice approval
– Fuel usage
– Fleet management
– Payroll — timekeeping & review procedures
– Grant management (application, award, reporting, compliance, communication, G/L tracking)
– IT & systems analysis
– Complex accounting — derivatives, swaps, futures, intangibles, etc.
– Cost allocations
– Customer complaints
– Debt compliance

Finance Department
– Payroll
– Purchasing / receiving
– Credit cards
– Travel
– IT & systems analysis — redundancy review
– Grant management
– Capital assets
– Inventories
– Journal entries
– Cash/transfers & bank account activity
– Wire transfers / EFT
– Debt management
– Long-term Cash flow & expenditure forecasting
– Cost allocations
– Customer complaints
– Billing for miscellaneous revenues
– Fraud management
– TOT/UUT/ business license/ other significant revenue sources
– Debt compliance

Governance
– Risk management
– Information & communication
– Credit card use
– Conflicts of interest
– Oversight of financial reporting & management override of controls Fraud hotline and Customer complaints

Transportation
– Management company compliance, report preparation & management fee verifications
– City oversight
– Communication with the City
– Cash receipting / fee schedule
– Purchasing – ordering / receiving – approval
– Invoice approval
– Credit card use
– Budget monitoring
– Inventory control
– Fuel usage
– Fleet management
– Capital asset controls — purchasing/receiving/observation & inspection
– Payroll — timekeeping & review procedures
– Grant management (application, award, reporting, compliance, communication, G/L tracking)
– IT & systems analysis
– Revenue and expenditure accrual — period end reporting
– Customer complaints
– other significant revenue sources

Internal service funds
– Allocation, classification
– Cost analysis

 

 

In Search of Heroes

California is not just any “blue state.” By many measures, California is a blue nation. It boasts the world’s sixth largest economy, isolated from the rest of the nation by mountains and deserts that were virtually impassable before modern times. It is blessed with diverse industries, abundant natural resources, and the most attractive weather in North America. California is nearly a nation unto itself.

And it is an occupied nation. California is ruled by a coalition of monopolistic businesses, public sector unions, and the environmentalist lobby. These Occupiers control a Democratic super-majority in the state legislature, as well as nearly all of California’s major cities, counties and school boards. To enrich and empower themselves, the Occupiers have oppressed California’s dwindling middle class and small business sectors, and condemned millions more to poverty and dependence.

For the average working family, no state in America is harder to live in than California. It has the highest cost-of-living, the highest taxes, the most onerous regulations, one of the worst systems of public education, congested freeways and failing infrastructure.  It will take heroic efforts to turn this around. And heroic efforts require heroes.

In the face of this overwhelming power, this alliance of oligarchs and government bureaucrats that has conned voters into embracing their servitude, where do you begin? What steps can you take? How do you rescue education, cut taxes, encourage new homes and new infrastructure, and save small businesses from crippling regulations?

As it turns out, a lot has been done in select locales, where heroes stepped up and successfully fought for reforms. And if those reforms could be replicated in other cities and counties, things would begin to change. To borrow a quote from Winston Churchill, if small local reforms began to spread across this great state, it would “not be the beginning of the end, but it would be the end of the beginning.” Here are some examples:

(1) Turning failing schools into charter schools:

As recently reported by CPC general counsel Craig Alexander, in 2015 parents at the Palm Lane Elementary School of the Anaheim City School District turned in far more signatures than needed under the Parent Trigger Law. The goal of the law and the parents at Palm Lane was to convert a public school that had failed their children for over a decade into a charter school. But the district, as a pretext to denying the Parent’s Petitions, improperly disallowed many signatures. It took a few years for parent volunteers and pro-bono attorneys, all of them heroically volunteering their time, to fight in court. But on Friday, April 28, 2017, the Court of Appeals issued a 34-page opinion that upheld in full the trial court’s ruling in favor of the parents and against the Anaheim Elementary School District. The Appeals Court found the trial court’s initial ruling, including the court’s findings of the bad faith tactics of the district, was correct in all aspects. Palm Lane Elementary school will start the 2017-2018 school year as a charter school.

(2) Stopping secret negotiations between cities and counties and public sector unions:

It wasn’t easy, but a few years ago, heroic progress was made. Orange County, Costa Mesa, and Fullerton all adopted so called “COIN” ordinances. COIN stands for “civic openness in negotiations.” This prevented elected officials from approving sweetheart deals with the government unions whose campaign contributions got them elected, all behind closed doors with minimal opportunities for public review. And to explain what happened next, one may borrow a quote from Tolkien: “Sauron’s [the Occupiers] wrath will be terrible, his retribution swift.” California’s union-controlled legislature passed a law they termed “CRONEY” (Civic Reporting Openness in Negotiations Efficiency Act), which mandates government agencies with COIN ordinances make public all negotiations with private vendors involving contracts over $250,000. There’s no comparison, of course. Private vendors disclose proprietary cost information in negotiations, and public entities are already required to take multiple bids in a competitive process. By contrast, public sector compensation, benefits and work rules are by definition not proprietary, they are public. And public sector unions, regrettably, have no competitors.

(3) Reforming financially unsustainable pension benefits:

If someone told you that they were going to invest their money, but if that money didn’t earn enough interest, they were going to take your money to make up the difference, would you think that was fair? Of course not. But that’s how a couple of million unionized public sector workers are treating the rest of us. California’s annual pension costs have risen from 3% of all state and local government revenue (i.e., “taxes”) to nearly 10% today, and there is no end in sight. But heroes are out there. In June 2012 voters in San Diego and San Jose passed pension reform initiatives. In both cases, to borrow some Star Wars terminology, “The Empire [The Occupiers] Strikes Back.” After relentless attacks in court, San Diego’s reforms were left largely intact, and San Jose’s were severely undermined, although some important provisions were preserved.

The people who fought for these reforms are too numerous to mention. They are all heroes. Some of them, like San Jose mayor Chuck Reed, San Diego councilmember Carl DeMaio, Costa Mesa mayor Jim Righeimer, and California state senator Gloria Romero, were elected officials whose courage has earned them the permanent enmity of the Occupiers. Other heroes, far more numerous, were the citizens, parents, and activists who dedicated countless hours to these causes.

Turning California back into a place where ordinary citizens can afford homes and get quality public education is not going to be easy. But there is no chance unless heroic individuals band together and fight the Occupiers, one issue at a time, one city at a time, one school district at a time.

Over the next several months, the California Policy Center intends to find more examples of heroic local reforms. It is our intention to not only compile these stories, but for each of them, distill them to the essential steps that were taken, so that these winning formulas can serve as an example to others.

We are in search of heroes. Contact us. Tell us your story.

 *   *   *

Ed Ring can be reached at ed@calpolicycenter.org.

 

How These Public Schools Went from ‘Exemplary’ to 'Deteriorating' in Just Months

Just months before they told the public they need billions of dollars in new tax revenue for school repairs, school district officials across California were telling the state Department of Education a very different story: their facilities are in “good” condition — even “exemplary.”

The glowing self-assessments are contained in School Accountability Report Cards reviewed by California Policy Center.

In exchange for state funding, all public schools in California must publish annual SARCs to “provide the public with important information about each public school and to communicate a school’s progress in achieving its goals.”

School districts – under the leadership of the superintendent or deputy superintendent – are responsible for completing the SARCs and accurately representing the state of each school. They rank the condition of each facility ­– “good,” “fair,” or “poor” ­– and give an overall rating. After being published by the district and submitted to the California Department of Education, the report cards are made available to the general public.

A letter from Brea-Olinda Unified School District (BOUSD) superintendent Brad Mason announces a $288 million bond will enable that north Orange County district to repair “old and deteriorating schools.” The result will be “safe, healthy and modern learning environments.”

But in December, BOUSD schools reported that all features of each of its facilities were in at least  “good” condition, and that every facility was generally “exemplary.” A few months after that SARC report, Mason told voters that only a tax hike could address the district’s “serious school facility issues.”

South of BOUSD, in Huntington Beach, Ocean View School District officials claim they need a $319 million tax increase for “essential repairs and improvements.” But district officials had just reported that six out of the 11 elementary schools were in overall “exemplary” condition. The other five were in “good” condition. All four middle schools were also rated “good” overall.

Catrin Thorman is a California Policy Center fall Journalism Fellow. She is a graduate of Azusa Pacific University, and a former Teach for America corps member in Phoenix, Arizona.

California Cities Facing Huge Pension Increases from CalPERS

In their most recent actuarial reports CalPERS for the first time provided pension cost estimates for the next 8 years, from 2015 to 2023.

How high are these costs going for California’s cities who retroactively increased their pensions at CalPERS urging over the past 15 years? To answer that question I looked at the largest city in my county, Santa Rosa and this is what I found.

Data Sources for this Report

The data used to develop the spreadsheet analysis done as part of this report are NOT numbers that I calculated. The past numbers for 2002 to 2015 are taken directly from the City of Santa Rosa’s Comprehensive Annual Financial Reports found on the City’s website (This page has the links to Santa Rosa’s CAFRs from 2001 through 2015. In each of these CAFRs, the pension information is found in the section entitled “Notes to Basic Financial Statements” under the heading “Employees Retirement Plan.”). The projected growth of certain costs – such as retiree healthcare benefits (also known as “other post employment benefits,” or OPEB), the payroll and sales and property tax revenues – use inflation rates or growth rates similar to what CalPERS uses.

The future pension costs were obtained directly from the 2013 and 2015 Actuarial Reports prepared by CalPERS and found on the CalPERS website. Since the future costs are based upon CalPERS achieving a 7.5% net rate of investment return, I believe their costs are understated, but I used them anyway. But since the pension plan has $804 million worth of assets if the pension fund returns 6.5%, in a single year it will add $8 million to the City’s pension debt and a 5% return would add $20 million.

Looking at the data going back 16 years what I found is that in 2000, Santa Rosa’s pension contribution was $1.8 million and the plan was 122% funded, meaning there were $1.22 worth of invested assets in the fund for every $1.00 worth of benefits earned.

With CalPERS wholehearted support and assistance, on August 6, 2002, the Santa Rosa City Council passed a board resolution to enact a new contract with CalPERS that changed formulas from 2% per year of service at 55 years of age for non-safety Miscellaneous employees to a 3% at 60 formula.  The new formula was provided prospectively, meaning it only applied to future years of service, not past years.

For Police and Fire employees, the new contract was adopted retroactively so it applied to past and future years of service. Their formula went from 2% per year of service at 55 years of age to 3% at 50. This represents a more than 50% increase in the benefit, since along with the “multiplier” increasing from 2% to 3%, the age of eligibility dropped from 55 to 50. But it was the retroactive granting of this benefit that caused even more significant financial liability. This is because the multiplier was increased by 50% even for years already worked and raised pensions from 60% of salary to 90% of salary for 30 years of service.

These changes ended up having a serious impact on the pension costs and the unfunded liability because CalPERS used an overly optimistic rate of investment return of 8.25% compounded per year in their cost analysis. Over the past 15 years since the increase, CalPERS has only achieved a 5% compound rate of return. Many experts believe in this current low interest rate environment returns will remain at the 5% return level for the foreseeable future.

In July of 2003 the City took on $53 million worth of new debt by selling Pension Obligation Bonds (POB) and giving the proceeds to CalPERS to pay down the unfunded liability that was created by the new formulas. With interest these bonds will divert over $100 million from government services to debt service.

CalPERS Flawed Cost Analysis and Lack of Proper Disclosure

CalPERS cost analysis provided to the City in 2002 stated the cost for the new 3% at 50 formula for Safety members would be 13.27% of salary and the cost for the 3% at 60 formula for Miscellaneous members would be 9.87% of salary. However, as previously stated, these estimates were calculated assuming that pension assets would grow at 8.25% per year into the future. Since CalPERS investments have only averaged 5% over the past 15 years the increases have created $287 million in unfunded pension liabilities for the City as of 2015.

In addition, the analysis did not provide the City with any warning or disclosure regarding what would happen if the 8.25% investment return was not achieved. CalPERS simply wrote “For many plans at CalPERS the financial soundness of the plan will not be jeopardized regardless of the new formula choice made by the employer.”

The Growth of Pension Costs Since the Increase

In 2001, the City’s pension contribution was $1.5 million and in the first 4 years following the increase it grew to $11.5 million. In addition, the funding ratio dropped from 122% in 2001 to 70% in 2005 meaning the fund, instead of $63 million in excess assets now had $128 million in unfunded liabilities.

In 2006, the annual cost grew by another $5 million hitting $16.6 million and by 2015 had grown to $21 million. However, this was a very modest growth considering CalPERS lost 29% of its assets during the Great Recession in 2008 and 2009. CalPERS lowered contributions in order to help cities and counties who saw their tax revenues during the recession drop. So CalPERS extended the amortization period on the unfunded liabilities from 9 to 20 years and smoothed their investment gains and losses from 4 to 15 years into the future. Basically, these were accounting gimmicks that resulted in severe underfunding of the pension plan and these changes exist today. The chart below shows the growth of Santa Rosa public employee retirement costs (click here to see the underlying calculations).

Santa Rosa Retirement Cost Growth

However, now CalPERS is worried that the plans are not being properly funded and pension contributions need to be doubled over the next 9 years.

Projected Future Costs

In their 2015 actuarial reports, CalPERS provided the City with their normal employer contribution as a percentage of payroll and the unfunded actuarial liability (UAL) as a total cost each year from 2015 to 2023. Using a 3% payroll growth assumption and their UAL numbers, I calculated the annual costs going forward. In addition, I added the pension obligation bond debt service each year going forward along with the cost of retiree healthcare benefits using a 5% annual cost increase assumption as CalPERS does.

My analysis indicates that during the next 8 years, the cost for retiree benefits will increase from $31.0 million or 33.7% of payroll in 2015 to $59.1 million or 48% of payroll in 2023.

The nearly doubling of pension and retiree healthcare costs means the City will need to cut salaries, benefits, services and/or increase taxes each and every year going forward by $3.2 million per year to meet their retiree benefit costs.

Pension and Healthcare Costs as a Percentage of Tax Revenues

More important than pension costs as a percentage of payroll are pension costs as a percentage of tax revenues because tax revenues are what enables the City to pay for its benefits. Once retiree benefit costs exceed the City’s ability to pay them, they will no longer be able to be fully paid and at that point either they will need to be reduced in bankruptcy or through significant pension reductions. The chart below shows the growth of pension costs relative to that of general fund property tax and sales tax revenues.

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The results of my analysis are staggering. Over the past 15 years’ sales and property tax revenues have climbed an average of 3% per year, while employee retirement costs have increased an average of 19% per year. This has led to a growth of retiree benefit costs from 3.5% of major tax revenues in 2001 to 47% in 2015 and an estimated growth to 70% of major tax revenues by 2023 (Editor’s note:  the city receives other revenues which may also be available to finance pension costs).

Growth of the Unfunded Liability

The unfunded liability of the pension plan is calculated by taking the assets in the plan minus the present value of the benefits already earned by current employees and retirees, considered the plan’s liability. The funding ratio is determined by dividing the market value of assets in the plan by the liability.

CalPERS discounts the long term liability by assuming before the money is paid to retirees, it will earn investment income. CalPERS currently uses an assumed 7.5% rate of investment return to calculate the liability and payments to the plan. So if the assumed investment return is lowered, the unfunded liability of the plan increases along with the cost of paying off the liability. Unfunded liability costs are borne by taxpayers and are not a shared expense with the employees.

Currently, using a 7.5% assumed rate of return, the pension fund has $287 million worth of unfunded liabilities and pension bond debt and is 74% funded. However, many experts believe in this low interest rate environment a lower investment return assumption should be used. Many experts think that a 5.5% to 6.5% rate should be used. Other experts believe a 3.5% rate should be used since this is about the rate private pension plans are required to use and what CalPERS uses if a City wanted to buy their way out of the CalPERS system. I won’t guess what the future investment returns will be, but here is what happens to the unfunded liability at various rates of investment return assumptions:

  • At 6.5% the unfunded liability would increase to $426 million and $50 million per year to would be added to the City’s pension costs.
  • At 5.5% the unfunded liability would increase to $585 million and $97 million per year would be added to the City’s pension costs.
  • At 4.5% the unfunded liability would increase to $755 million and $137 million per year would be added to the City’s pension costs.
  • At 3.5% the unfunded liability would increase to $967 million and $187 million per year would be added to the City’s pension cost.

Santa Rosa Analysis of Unfunded Liability at Various Rates of Investment Return

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City Pension Plan Status Using ERISA Standards

Under the Federal ERISA rules for private pensions, a high quality bond rate of return is used to determine the assumed rate of investment return. Today that is around 3.5%. ERISA also defines the health of a pension plan as follows:

  • Less than 80% funded is considered “seriously endangered”
  • Less than 70% funded is considered “at risk”
  • Less than 65% funded is considered “critical status”

So under ERISA standards, the City of Santa Rosa’s pension plan at 45% funded when assuming a 3.5% return is 20 percentage points below what ERISA would consider “critical status”. So one could more accurately describe the pension system as being on “life support”.  Also, under ERISA rules the pension benefits each year would stop being accrued until the plan becomes 60% funded to keep the hole from going deeper.

ERISA also requires the plan sponsor pay off their unfunded liabilities over 7 years. CalPERS currently allows public agencies to pay off their liability over up to 30 years. If the City was required to pay off its unfunded liability over the next 7 years, their annual contribution to the pension fund would grow from $28 million to $146 million in 2015 alone. So under ERISA rules pension costs would increase by $120 million per year and take them to 145% of payroll.

Conclusion

The City of Santa Rosa and all cities in California who retroactively increased pensions need to restructure their pension systems. Otherwise it is increasingly unlikely they will be able to afford the benefits that have already been earned and provide taxpayers with the services they deserve for their tax dollars.

City officials can no longer pretend a crisis does not exist. They would be well advised to form a Pension Advisory Committee and bring all the stakeholders to the table to look at all the options, have an actuary determine the savings for each option and make informed decisions to save the pension plan and benefits people are counting on to fund their retirement.

 *   *   *

About the author:  Ken Churchill is the author of numerous studies on the pension crisis in California and is also the Director of New Sonoma, an organization of financial experts and citizens concerned about Sonoma County’s finances and governance.

REFERENCES AND RELATED ARTICLES

California Court Ruling Allows Pension Changes, August 26, 2016

How CalPERS has Created a Ticking Time Bomb, November 30, 2015

The Devastating Impact of Retroactive Pension Increases in California, April 27, 2015

Evaluating Total Unfunded Public Employee Retirement Liabilities in 20 California Counties, May 6, 2014

Sonoma County’s Pension Crisis – Analysis and Recommendations, January 12, 2014

The Sonoma County Retroactive Pension Increase: Gross Incompetence or Billion Dollar Scam?, April 15, 2012

How Retroactive Benefit Increases and Lower Returns Blew Up Sonoma County’s Pensions, April 5, 2012

 

West Contra Costa Healthcare District Goes Bankrupt Again; Time to Throw in the Towel

On October 20, the West Contra Costa County Healthcare District (WCCHD) filed for Chapter 9 municipal bankruptcy – its second such bankruptcy filing in ten years. In 2015, the district closed its one hospital – Doctors Medical Center in San Pablo – which had been hemorrhaging money for many years. Since WCCHD is insolvent and no longer operates a hospital, one might expect the district to simply dissolve; but instead it plans to continue collecting tax revenue and to do something, anything to justify its ongoing existence. As we explained in our 2015 study, California Healthcare Districts in Crisis, zombie public hospital districts exist across the state.

As reported in the East Bay Times, WCCHD decided to file for bankruptcy after a Davis, CA based hotel operator, Royal Guest Hotels, pulled out of a deal to buy the hospital building and eight acres of surrounding land owned by the district. In its filing, the district listed $5.4 million of cash and other current assets. The district also owns the hospital building and acreage, which appears to be worth something less than the $13.5 million Royal Guest Hotels had originally agreed to pay.

Against these assets, the district reported liabilities of over $100 million.  These include:

Type of Obligation Amount
Bonded Debt $ 57.0
Employee Pension Obligation 20.0
Loan from Contra Costa County 14.4
Workers Comp and Other Litigation Liabilities 4.0
General Trade Creditors 2.2
Center for Medicare and Medicaid Services (due to Medicare overcharges) 1.9
Unemployment Liability (California Employment Development Department) 1.6
Total (Approximate) $101.1

Among WCCHD’s “General Trade Creditors” is the Contra Costa County Clerk who is owed $414,920 for biennial district election expenses.  When combined with the $14.4 million unsecured county loan, it appears that Contra Costa taxpayers are in jeopardy of losing almost $15 million from this bankruptcy proceeding.

In terms of income, the district receives about $9.5 million in tax revenue each year. That includes a $4 million allocation from the standard 1% ad valorem property tax paid by district residents – who live in the cities of Richmond, El Cerrito, San Pablo, Hercules and Pinole as well as adjacent unincorporated areas – and commercial property owners. These same taxpayers also pay a separate parcel tax ranging from $52 for a single-family home to $1040 for a large commercial or industrial property. Parcel tax revenues amount to $5.5 million per year and will continue indefinitely unless repealed.

Bondholders have first claim on the parcel tax revenues and receive interest at rates of up to 6.25%. The district is also paying employees now acting in caretaker roles as well as pensions to retired employees. In March 2016, the district had nine employees performing Information Technology, Finance, Security, Plant Operation, Housekeeping and Administrative roles with payroll running at an annual rate of $2.5 million. According to Transparent California, WCCHD made over $900,000 in pension payments during 2014.

So the property and parcel tax revenue will be used to pay bondholders, employees and pensioners for years to come. None of this benefits the community, which is among the poorest in the Bay Area.

One option would be to dissolve the district. The County could then retain the $4 million in annual ad valorem tax revenue, and sunset the parcel tax once the bondholders have been paid off. But such a financially prudent approach is not on WCCHD’s agenda. According to the district’s bankruptcy filing:

The District intends to use this Chapter 9 case to effect a Plan of Adjustment so that the District can satisfy, to the extent possible, its obligations to creditors and potentially expand operations aimed at enhancing the health, safety, and welfare of the citizens of the District or otherwise provide for the future of the District.

Such an approach is wasteful because the district would have to continue paying election expenses of over $400,000 every two years. It also involves maintaining a separate bureaucracy with the amorphous purpose of providing healthcare services without a hospital.

One possibility would be for the County’s Local Agency Formation Commission (LAFCo) to dissolve WCCHD over the objections of district management. Dissolving the district was one of a number of options presented in a study commissioned by the Contra Costa LAFCo. The study outlines dissolution steps and notes that a newly enacted state law, AB 2610, permits a district to be dissolved without the need for a costly election.

It is understandable that bureaucracies tend to perpetuate themselves. Directors and staff members believe that they are doing something important and (the latter) want to continue being paid. But when a public agency with taxing authority has outlived its purpose, it is essential that the agency be terminated so that it stops burdening the community that it no longer serves.

Note:  The bankruptcy filing is 4:16-bk-42917 and the case is being handled by the U.S. Bankruptcy Court, Northern District of California. Documents related to this case can be obtained electronically through the PACER system at a cost of $0.10 per page.

Construction Firms Fund Orange County School Bond Campaigns

Companies linked to the school construction industry have placed their November bets on a number of Orange County school bond ballot measures, a California Policy Center investigation of campaign contribution reports collected by the Orange County Registrar of Voters show.

frequentcontributors

Atkinson, Andelson, Loya, Rudd & Romo (AALRR) is a law firm with eight offices across California. AALRR has donated $2000 to Anaheim Elementary School District’s bond measure, $12,000 to Orange Unified School District and $1000 to Fountain Valley School District. AALRR claims to represent nearly half the school districts in California and has previously represented both districts.

Bernards Builders Management Services is a general contractor located in San Fernando. Bernards has donated $2000 to Anaheim Elementary’s bond measure and $5000 to Brea-Olinda Unified School District’s measure. Bernards has worked with Brea-Olinda before on the Brea-Olinda High School and Olinda Elementary School. The subcontracted architecture firm for the Brea projects, LPA, has donated $10,000 this election cycle to Orange’s bond measure.

Ledesma & Meyer Construction Company Inc (LMCCI), located in Rancho Cucamonga, is a construction firm that proclaims to have completed “over a billion dollars of public works and K-12 school district projects.” LMCCI previously contracted with Ocean View Unified School District on asbestos removal projects amounting to over $3.4 million. Ocean View USD has a $148 million bond measure this fall and among their proposed projects is additional asbestos removal. LMCCI has contributed $25,000 in support of Ocean View USD’s measure. LMCCI has also contributed $5000 to Anaheim Elementary bond measures.

Pocock Design Solutions, Inc. is a Tustin-based full service design firm. Pocock has completed design projects for both new construction and modernization in over 60 schools districts in California. Pocock has donated $1500 each to the Anaheim Elementary and Ocean View Unified School District bond measures.

All firms worked throughout Southern California on previous school construction projects.

ocmeasures

In addition to this election cycle, California Policy Center examined contributions in 2014 made by construction firms to two incumbent Orange USD board members. Vanir Construction Management, a general contractor with offices throughout the Southwestern United States, contributed $1000 each to Timothy Surridge and Rick Ledesma. In addition, Arcadis, a design and consultancy firm, contributed $2000 to Rick Ledesma. Both Ledesma and Surridge voted in favor placing Measure S before voters in Orange USD this fall.

There’s of course no guarantee any of these firms will win lucrative contracts associated with new funding from the ballot measures. California State Public Contract Code Section 100 requires local governments to offer all businesses “a fair opportunity to enter the bidding process, thereby stimulating competition in a manner conducive to sound fiscal practices” in order to “eliminate favoritism, fraud, and corruption in the awarding of public contracts.”

But concern about what some state officials call “pay to play” campaign contributions has risen. California State Treasurer John Chiang issued a press release in July on the subject of pay-to-play, specifically addressing bond underwriters.

“Preying on school districts eager to win voter approval for bond elections, municipal finance firms, including bond counsel, underwriters, and financial advisors, are offering to fund or provide campaign services in exchange for contracts to issue the bonds, once approved by voters,” Chiang warned.

The concern about pay-to-play is not limited to underwriters. The California Building Industry Association has donated over $1,500,000 to Proposition 51, a statewide measure that would allow the state of California to issue $9 million in bonds for the State School Facilities Fund. The builders are the second-largest contributor in support of the proposition.

Andrew Heritage is a California Policy Center fall Journalism Fellow. He is a doctoral student in political science at the Claremont Graduate University.

Why are the Economy and Incomes Growing So Slowly?

Why are so many people unhappy and angry?  Why is the electorate turning to populist candidates like Bernie Sanders and Donald Trump?  Why are they so mad at the Washington D.C. establishment?  What’s the problem?

This is the second in a series of articles.  The first dealt with the fact that the cost of health care and education have been growing much faster than family incomes making these essential services unaffordable to more people.

This second article will discuss the other half of the problem, slow growth of the economy leading to low growth of household incomes and the shortage of good quality jobs.

The most important economic question facing the U.S. is how do we grow the economy faster?  Faster growth solves a lot of problems.  Growth increases government tax revenues without any tax rate increases, adds jobs and increases wages, and makes our debts and entitlement obligations easier to support.

Since the end of the Second World War until about 2000, the economy as measured by gross domestic product (GDP) grew an average of 3.5 %/year for over 50 years.  At that growth rate, the economy doubles about every 20 years raising incomes and living standards.  This is real GDP growth, nominal or current dollar GDP less inflation, as reported by the U.S. Federal Reserve.

Since 2000, the economy has grown less than 2.0 %/year.  This year, 2016, the economy has only grown about 1.5 %/year so far.  The latest official forecasts by the Congressional Budget Office and the Federal Reserve forecast real growth of only about 2.0 %/year.

The difference between 3.5%/year growth and 2.0%/year growth is not 1.5%, it’s almost 60% less, a very big deal.  What’s happening?  Why the slowdown and why can’t we grow the economy faster?  According to Stanford economist John Cochrane, “restoring sustained, long-term economic growth is the key to just about every economic and budgetary problem we face.”

If the economy had grown at 3.5%/year since 2000, the economy today would be $3.0 trillion larger and household incomes would be an estimated 18% larger, about $10,000 per household.

On a per capita basis, adjusting for a growing population, GDP has grown about 2.2 %year from the end of the Second World War until 2000.   But since 2000, GDP per capita has only been growing about 0.9%/year, a major slowdown.

A consequence of slower GDP growth is slower growth of wages and household incomes.  The Median household income peaked at $57,900 (2015 constant dollars) in 1999 when Bill Clinton was president. It is now $56,500 as of the end of 2015.  There is no improvement when adjusted for inflation.

20161031-cpc-fletcher1

In addition, real average hourly wages have been flat at about $21/hour for decades, according to the Pew Research Center.

Where does growth come from anyway?

It’s really simple.  The economy only grows due to two factors, an increase in total hours worked (people with jobs) and productivity improvements (output per hour worked).

20161031-cpc-fletcher2

Total labor hours are based upon the percent of the population of working age times the labor force participation rate (the % of the workforce employed or looking for work), and the average hours worked per employed person.

Demographics are leading to slower growth in the work force, from an average of about 1.2 %/year since World War II to about 2000 to about 0.5%/year today.

The more serious problem is below trend productivity growth.  This is especially serious since productivity improvements are the only source of rising living standards (higher incomes).  Without productivity improvements, we’d have on average the same incomes as our parents and grandparents. Non-farm business sector labor productivity growth has averaged about 2.2%/year from the end of the Second World War to 2000 but has dropped to less than 1.0%/year since then.  Over the past year, productivity grew at only 0.6%/year.

At 2.2%/year, incomes double about every 33 years.  At 1.0%/year, it takes about 70 years to double incomes.

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Let’s take a closer look at productivity first, then the labor force.

Why is productivity so low and what can we do about it?

To quote John Cochrane again, “Nothing other than productivity matters in the long run.”  It’s the only source of rising living standards.  However, the U.S. Federal Reserve believes that productivity growth will remain low for an “extended period of time.”  Why?

What could be the causes of the productivity slowdown?  Is it a permanent condition or will productivity improve on its own over time?  Surprisingly, there is very little agreement on why we are seeing a slowdown in productivity growth or what to do about it.  We can’t come up with effective solutions if we don’t know what’s causing the problem.  Several reasons have been proposed for the slowdown:

  1. A pessimistic assessment: An explanation is advanced by Professor Robert Gordon in his latest book entitled The Rise and Fall of American Growth.  He makes a strong argument that the growth we’ve seen over the past 250 years could be a unique episode in history.  There is no guarantee that we will progress at the same rate in the future.  Yes, we have the Internet and other recent advances.  However, they will not have the same impact on productivity and growth as, for example, the steam engine, indoor plumbing, electricity, and the internal combustion engine.  The major inventions that replaced repetitive manual and clerical labor happened in the past.  Recent inventions have centered on entertainment and communications and have made things smaller, cheaper, and more capable but don’t do much to enhance labor productivity.  The Internet may add to our convenience and entertainment but may not do much to boost productivity.  Are the Internet and wireless communications a problem?  On average, we spend a lot of unproductive time on social media and talking on our ever-present cell phones.

Others disagree with Gordon’s conclusions and say we just need more time for exciting new technologies to impact productivity.

  1. The switch from manufacturing to services: To date, productivity improvements have been lower in the labor intensive service sector of the economy which now makes up about 80% of nonfarm employment in the U.S.  There are more than 6 jobs in the service sector for every manufacturing (goods producing) job.

Health care, education, and government employment are an increasing share of the GDP and show low to no productivity growth.  They make up about 57% of the economy.  If the right kind of investment, new technologies, and other changes eventually lead to major productivity improvements in services such as retail, education, health care, and banking and finance, then output per service worker could rise.

  1. A potentially more optimistic assessment: Stanford Professor John Taylor and others believe that the decline in productivity is largely due to poor economic policies. There is a lot of unrealized potential that can be made available by making changes to improve productivity and get more people back into the workforce. In the past, there have been large swings in productivity growth depending upon government policies in effect at the time.  Professor Taylor concludes that today’s low productivity growth is largely due to a lower rate of investment in capital stock per worker.  This can be corrected by tax and regulatory reforms.

Note that investment in new equipment, software, and new product development is the primary means by which better tools and technology get into the hands of workers and contribute to productivity improvements.

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Part of the problem is that U.S. businesses are going into debt, $793 billion in 2015, largely to pay for stock buybacks and mergers and acquisitions rather than for productive investments in new equipment and new technology.  This “financial engineering” bids up stock prices and makes stock options more valuable for company executives.  These investments do nothing to improve productivity or add jobs.

Our tax code is probably discouraging capital investments.  There are also disincentives associated with the increasing number of government regulations at the state and federal level. Do we have too much bureaucracy?  The Dodd-Frank bill on banking reform was 2,300 pages long.  The Affordable Care Act was 961 pages long.  Each spawned thousands of pages of detailed regulations applied to the banking system and the health care industry.

Labor force growth:

The other reason for low GDP growth is the slower growth of the workforce in the U.S. from about 1.2%/year until about 2000, and 0.5%/year since then.  This is due to the ending of the baby boom, the increasing percentage of older retired citizens, and the fact that the percentage of working age women in the workforce is no longer increasing.  There has also been an increase in the number of people who are discouraged and no longer looking for work, mainly working age men.  This leads to a slower growing labor force.

This is reflected in the labor force participation rate, the percentage of the working age population who are employed or actively looking for work.  The participation rate peaked at 67% in 2000 and has since declined to slightly less than 63% today.  Due to this decline in the participation rate, there are over 7.0 million fewer people in the workforce.  Professor Taylor points out that only a small portion of this decline can be attributed to retiring baby boomers.  The rest is due to people deciding to exit the workforce for various reasons such as finding it difficult to find a job or deciding to apply for disability benefits instead.

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If the participation rate could be raised to say 65 percent over 5 to 7 years, this would add more than 1.0 million people to the civilian labor force each year and double the growth of the labor force from 0.5 percent/year to 1.1 percent/year and increase GDP growth by the same amount.

The Federal Reserve says that we have achieved full employment, meeting their target of 5.0%.  Is this true? If we account for those who have dropped out of the workforce and those who are working part-time but want full-time work, the unemployment rate would be 9.7%.  There are a lot of people who are working in low paying jobs or working part-time even though they want to work full-time.

The percent of the male working age population who are in the workforce has been declining for a long time from 86% in the 1950s to 75% in 2000, and down to 69% today.  There are a lot of discouraged men who are no longer looking for work.

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Where do jobs come from anyway?

Government tax policies and regulations can encourage or discourage investment, business expansion, and job creation.  But the government can’t create jobs no matter what politicians say.  Jobs are created when someone in the private sector expands an existing business or starts a new business.  Each job created requires a substantial investment plus other startup expenses and a lot of hard work by someone. This investment varies from $25,000/job or more for a fast food restaurant employing minimum wage “burger flippers” to $ millions/job for a high-tech factory to manufacture jet engines or microprocessors.  Policies that discourage investment and business growth are job killers.

Ominously, there has been a marked slowdown in the number of job producing startups.  In addition, since about 2008, the number of firms that have gone out of business has exceeded the number of startups.

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If we improve productivity it will mean fewer jobs in today’s businesses that can produce more with less labor.  That is an issue and always has been.  However, we have been able to count on the private sector to create new jobs and new businesses to replace jobs that have been lost due to changes in technology and other causes.  For this to happen in the future, we need to be sure that investors and entrepreneurs have strong incentives to invest in new businesses and the expansion of existing businesses to provide enough jobs in the future.

We also need to figure out what needs to be done to offset some of the wage differential between the U.S. and lower wage countries if we want U.S. and foreign companies to choose to locate or expand facilities here.

So what?

If Professor Taylor and others are right, there is a lot of untapped potential in today’s economy.  If it is possible to increase productivity and get more people into the labor force, then it is possible to boost GDP growth from the recent 2.0%/year to 3.0%/year or higher with the right government policy changes.  However, do we have the political will needed to make these changes?

The next article in this series will look at the government’s 10 year forecast and its implications.

A later article will look in more detail at possible ways we might be able to increase GDP growth by improving the labor participation rate and raising productivity growth.

About the Author:

William Fletcher is a business executive with interests in public finance and national security. He retired as Senior Vice President at Rockwell International where most of his career was spent on international operations and business development for Rockwell Automation. Before joining Rockwell, he worked for Bechtel Corporation, McKinsey and Company, Inc., and Combustion Engineering’s Nuclear Power Division, and was an officer and engineer in the U.S. Navy’s nuclear program. His international experience includes expatriate assignments in Hong Kong, Europe, the Middle East, Africa and Canada. In addition to his interest in California’s finances, he is involved in organizations dealing with national security and international relations. Fletcher is a graduate of Tufts University with a BS degree in Engineering and a BA degree in Government. He also graduated from the U.S. Navy’s Bettis Reactor Engineering School.

In a Political Campaign, City Officials Can Spend Your Money Against You. They Call it 'Education'

This commentary appeared first in the Orange County Register.

Californians going to the polls on Nov. 8 will find more than 300 measures to raise taxes. And despite multiple legal decisions limiting the practice, municipal officials in California may be paying outside consultants to run the campaign to sell you on your local tax measure.

In short, government officials use the public’s money to persuade the public to give government officials more money.

If you think that’s strange, you have good company. In the 1976 case Stanson v. Mott, the California Supreme Court established the principle that would seem to govern the space where government reaches out like the muscular and fully clothed God in Michelangelo’s “The Creation of Adam” and encounters a single naked, relatively powerless American voter. The judges put it plainly: “A fundamental precept of this nation’s democratic electoral process is that the government may not ‘take sides’ in a election contests or bestow an unfair advantage on one of several factions.”

The justices allowed that providing information and opinion – educating the public – is a legitimate function of government officials.

But how do we decide what’s political and what’s merely educational?

In the 2009 landmark case Vargas v. City of Salinas, the court returned to the distinction between information and campaigning, and the “style, tenor or timing” standard, says Thomas Brown, city attorney for St. Helena, California, and a partner in the Oakland offices of Burke Williams & Sorensen.

“The potential danger to the democratic electoral process is not presented when a public entity simply informs the public of its opinion on the merits of a pending ballot measure or of the impact on the entity that passage or defeat of the measure is likely to have,” says Brown. “The threat to the fairness of the electoral process arises when a public entity devotes funds to campaign activities favoring or opposing such a measure.”

But throughout the state, public officials increasingly turn to campaign consultants. Wave a magic wand and you can declare that politicking “educational.”

Take the city of Stanton. In the run-up to a controversial 2014 local sales tax measure, city officials in Stanton made 16 payments totaling $85,970 to Lew Edwards Group, an Oakland-based political consulting firm.

The consultant’s Stanton proposal indicates the relationship was always about winning a campaign. Sent to city officials on March 18 of that year, that document declares Lew Edwards Group “the California leader in Local Government Revenue Measures.”

“Lew Edwards Group has successfully enacted more than $30 billion in California tax and revenue measures with a 95 percent success rate, including $2.34 billion in successful tax and bond measures in Orange County alone,” the proposal says. In a separate PowerPoint document prepared for the city, company officials said they achieved political success in Orange County despite “the opposition of the OC Register in all cases.”

The company’s 2011 presentation to the California Society of Municipal Finance Officials is equally political. Titled “New Taxes: How to Get to Yes,” the presentation features a section on transforming informational studies into what sounds remarkably like campaign material. That section is called “Turning Theory into Reality: How to Convert Your City Studies and Polling Results into a Winning Campaign.”

The consultants’ website warns, “A Public Agency cannot, at any time, engage in a partisan campaign.” But the site goes on to offer advice about turning over campaign responsibilities to an outside group.

In the months leading up to Election Day 2014, Stanton residents were invited to community meetings where local elected officials, city staff and county firefighters and sheriff’s deputies warned them about Stanton’s crippled finances. When they returned to their homes, residents were hammered by official mailers predicting a public-safety catastrophe if the sales-tax measure failed. Invoices show the city (i.e., the taxpayers themselves) paid Lew Edwards for at least three mailers in the last six weeks of the campaign.

Supporters of such spending – generally public officials themselves – say government has a responsibility to educate. And now it’s possible for government officials to argue further, that they have a First Amendment right to support ballot measures. In the Vargas v. City of Salinas case, Salinas officials ultimately filed an anti-SLAPP suit against the plaintiffs, two local citizen watchdogs who had filed suit to stop the city from spending public dollars on a campaign. Revealing how far we’ve drifted from a fear of government power, a court ultimately sided with Salinas, and ordered the watchdogs to pay the city’s $200,000 legal bill. The plaintiffs have since declared bankruptcy.

There may yet be a new ending in Stanton. There, critics of the 2014 sales tax rallied, and late last year qualified a repeal measure for the November ballot.

But once again, those citizens will be fighting more than City Hall. Records obtained by the California Policy Center show Stanton officials signed a new contract with Lew Edwards Group. This time, officials say they’ll spend no more than $25,000. But like the last big contract, this one ends just days before Election Day.

Will Swaim is vice president of communications at the Tustin-based California Policy Center, and was founding editor of OC Weekly.

Contra Costa needs more road capacity, but we don’t need new sales taxes to build it

Along with the grandeur of Yosemite and the beauty of the California coast, there’s our state’s epic rush hours. But sales taxes on the Nov. 8 ballot, like Contra Costa’s Measure X, aren’t the way to solve them.

Measure X would add 0.5% to local sales tax rates to fund a variety of transportation projects around the county. But it would raise something other than revenue — like concerns about equity and efficiency.

Measure X would hike the overall tax rate in El Cerrito to 10.50% and in Richmond to 10.00%. Working class people in these neighborhoods – many of whom do not have cars – will be expected to pay more for clothing and school supplies to subsidize the commutes of affluent Tesla drivers living in Blackhawk and other wealthy communities.

Because Tesla’s and other Battery Electric Vehicles (BEVs) don’t use gas, their owners don’t pay the gasoline taxes that traditionally fund road construction and maintenance. The increased popularity of BEVs has contributed to the sharp decline in gas tax revenues collected by the state and distributed to counties. This reduction in gas tax funding is one reason county officials are asking voters to double the transportation sales tax from its current 0.5% level.

But by funding transportation improvements from general tax revenue, we are subsidizing drivers who most often travel the highways in single-occupancy vehicles. A better option is to fund highway improvements through toll revenues. Although we are starting to see toll lanes in Contra Costa County, much more can be done.

In Orange County, public agencies operate four toll roads as well as four express lanes in the median of SR-91. Agencies maintain these arteries with toll revenues; no taxpayer funding is required. The SR-91 express lanes, opened 20 years ago, have been a model for express lane projects elsewhere around the nation. The nearest example to us is a stretch of I-680 in Alameda County that includes a High Occupancy Toll (HOT) lane – one that can be used by carpools for free and by solo drivers for a fee that varies with the level of congestion. In California, express lane tolls are paid with FasTrak, just like bridge tolls.

The Metropolitan Transportation Commission is converting a carpool lane on I-680 between Walnut Creek and San Ramon to an HOT lane. But beyond conversions, drivers also need new lanes on portions of I-80, I-680, SR-24 and SR-4. Under Assembly Bill 194, these new lanes can be financed by bonds backed by toll revenues – reducing or eliminating the need for tax subsidies.

Budgeted costs and the risks of cost overruns (like the one experienced by the Bay Bridge replacement project) can be limited by contracting with private firms to design and build new express lanes. This is the approach the Orange County Transportation Authority is taking for new toll lanes it is adding to I-405, a project now out for bid.

Other states are leveraging the private sector even more. In the Miami suburbs, the Florida Department of Transportation has recently added three tolled, reversible express lanes to I-595. The successful project was not only designed and built privately, but the concessionaire is also operating and maintaining the new lanes.

In the Washington, D.C. suburbs, an Australian company owns and operates express lanes in the Capital Beltway, I-495. The same company also owns 13 tollways in Australia.

By correctly pricing our highways, we can attract private capital and the toll revenues needed to maintain and expand them. By asking drivers to fund the highways they use, we can relieve the burden on the county’s often disadvantaged sales taxpayers.

Will the BART Bond Fund Pensions?

This fall, voters in San Francisco, Alameda and Contra Costa counties will consider a $3.5 billion BART bond measure. Proponents argue that the measure is required to ensure the system’s safety and reliability. Critics are concerned that bond proceeds will be used to support excessive employee salaries and benefits.

BART management denies that claim. In an August 12 press release, BART management stated, “Not one penny, under any circumstance, can or will be used to pay for operating expenses, salaries, or benefits.” Indeed, using bond proceeds for such purposes would be illegal.

But there is an indirect way of using the bond to increase employee compensation. As Daniel Borenstein reports in The East Bay Times, BART currently devotes about 16% of its operating revenue to capital improvements. Once the bond measure passes, BART could reduce the amount of operating revenue it devotes to capital purposes, backfilling the shortfall with bond proceeds. BART management insists that it will not perform this sleight of hand, stating in its release:

To suggest we would use the money for salaries and benefits directly or “indirectly” is flat out wrong.  Cutting spending from the Capital Investment Plan in order to increase salaries would undo decades of financial projections and do immense damage to BART’s capacity to improve in the future.

Borenstein is unconvinced, noting that BART directors and staff have refused to make a commitment to continue the 16% annual operating revenue transfers. And the Times editorial board shares their columnist’s concern:  they have now advocated a no vote on the BART bond.

No one can be certain whether BART management or its critics will be correct, but it is useful to review the data on BART’s operating cost pressures. If BART management can’t restrain the growth in operating costs and are unwilling to offset these costs at the farebox, they will be obliged to skimp on capital investments.

As Chart 1 shows, BART labor expenses have risen sharply over the last five years. Budgeted labor costs have increased from $364.3 million to $499.6 million between FY 2012 and FY 2017, representing a constant annual growth rate of 6.52%. The amounts shown come from annual budget resolutions posted on BART’s web site.

Chart 1

Chart 1

Pension benefits are major sources of cost pressure. The system’s safety plan, administered by CalPERS, is only 63.3% funded. The employer contribution rate rose from 47.9% in Fiscal 2015 to 56.5% in the current fiscal year, and will rise again to 57.4% in Fiscal 2018. Most BART employees are in the system’s Miscellaneous employee plan. Contribution rates for this plan are lower but also escalating.

Chart 2 shows total BART employer pension contributions for the fiscal years ending June 30, 2014 through June 30, 2023 as projected in the most recent CalPERS actuarial reports. The projections beyond 2018 rely on optimist assumptions that CalPERS assets will return 7.5% and that BART’s covered payroll will rise by 3% annually. Still we see BART’s contributions rising from $35.7 million in Fiscal 2014 to $99 million in Fiscal 2023.

Chart 2

Chart 2

BART’s employer contributions are so high because benefits are generous and the retirement plan is carrying a lot of beneficiaries. BART police hired before December 30, 2014 are able to retire at age 50 with pensions of up to 90% of final salary. Newly hired PEPRA members must wait until age 57 and can only get up to 81% of final salary. PEPRA’s implementation for BART employees was delayed by the U.S. Department of Labor (DOL) because PEPRA interfered with collective bargaining. Citing Section 13c of the Urban Mass Transit Act, DOL refused to certify federal grants to BART if PEPRA was implemented. A Federal District Court overruled DOL, but the federal agency is continuing to challenge PEPRA on other grounds. (For more on this, see page 16 of BART’s 2017 Resource Manual).

As of June 30, 2015, the BART Safety plan had 275 beneficiaries – almost half again the number of active members. Many of the beneficiaries are under age 50, having earned retirement benefits due to disability.

Many retired safety and management employees draw very generous pensions. According to Transparent California data, 112 BART beneficiaries received $100,000 or more in 2015. Like many public employees, BART staff members are not eligible for social security, but unlike most agencies, BART provides an offsetting benefit. Employees can contribute to a 401(a) Money Purchase Pension Plan and receive an employer match. BART employees thus have a plan similar to a 401(k) on top of their generous defined benefit pension.

In addition to pensions, BART offers Other Post-Employment Benefits (OPEBs) including medical benefits to retirees and surviving spouses, retiree life insurance and survivor dental and vision benefits.  According to its most recent audited financial statements, these benefits cost BART $26 million in Fiscal Year 2015. On the plus side, BART has pre-funded a large portion of its OPEB obligation. Further, BART’s actuary has found that an increasing proportion of eligible retirees and spouses are not participating in the OPEB plan, reducing the rate of cost growth. In fact, BART expects to pay less for OPEBs in Fiscal 2017 than it did in in Fiscal 2016. (For more on this, see page 19 of BART’s 2017 Resource Manual). But if medical cost inflation picks up in the years ahead and more beneficiaries take advantage of BART’s OPEB benefits, the system could experience rapid increases in its OPEB expenditures.

In summary, it is impossible to know whether BART will fulfill its stated intention of maintaining the current flow of operating revenues to capital needs, thereby avoiding a scenario under which bond proceeds are effectively diverted. We do know, however, that the system faces high and rising labor costs. Looking into the future, it is all but certain that pension costs will rise rapidly given current underfunding and the generosity of benefits. These escalating pension expenditures will be a source of pressure on the BART board to scale back much-needed maintenance expenditures.

Just in Time for Halloween, City Manager Uses Official Letter to Scare Voters

Faced with the potential repeal of a controversial one-percent local sales tax, Stanton City Manager James Box mailed voters two weeks ago to warn that passage of a sales tax repeal will “terminate funding approved by Stanton voters” and result “in cuts to essential city services.”

The timing of Box’s letter, just weeks ahead of November 8, could be a problem for the city. Box justified his voter contact as a response to “many questions about Measure QQ.”

State Attorney General Kamala Harris stated in a legal opinion that “it is illegal to use public funds to influence the outcome of an election.” Government officials can inform the public, but cannot directly engage in campaigning. But there is a razor-thin margin between information and campaign activities.

Measure QQ, on this November’s ballot, would eliminate the sales tax increase approved by voters in 2014, and return the sales tax in Stanton to a combined state and Orange County base rate of 8%.

In his letter, Box claims the tax increase has allowed the city to “enhance existing programs” and “rebuild the city’s financial reserves.” He did not refer to the city’s decision in 2012 to issue bonds to build Central Park, a project that ballooned from $6 million to $24 million, and annual interest payments on debt totalling some $42 million over 30 years.

In 2014, Stanton claimed the city’s budget shortfall would lead to cuts in public safety spending. In order to convince voters to raise their own taxes, the city issued a series of mailings and a feedback survey – all of it, officials said, aimed at collecting residents’ priorities. In practice, the communications functioned as a push-poll – a campaigning tool used to manipulate public opinion.

Days before the 2014 election, Stanton city manager James Box mailed voters under a similar claim of the “number of phone calls from Stanton residents” he had received. He used the opportunity to hold up the feedback survey as proof that voters wanted to raise their own taxes when, in fact, the survey was biased toward a predetermined pro-public safety response.

City officials claimed that failure to approve the sales tax would lead to deep cuts in public safety. Yet, they chose not to create a “specific tax” that would have legally limited the tax revenue to public safety spending. Instead, they chose a general one-percent sales tax increase that would fill the coffers of the city’s general fund. In the two years since the measure’s passage, the city has spent millions on new park construction, expanded city services and raised public employee compensation.

Andrew Heritage is a California Policy Center fall Journalism Fellow. He is a doctoral student in political science at the Claremont Graduate University.

Is $288 Million the Right Price for Orange Unified High School Upgrades?

Given declining enrollment, Orange Unified School District’s $288 million bond measure may fund more school upgrades than students need.  There is also a risk that the taxpayer cost of debt service for the bond issue will exceed the district’s forecast rate of $29 per $100,000 of assessed valuation.

According to statistics from Ed Data, enrollment across the four OUSD high schools fell from 9,311 in the 2010-2011 school year to 8,936 in 2014-2015, the latest school year for which figures are available. The district projects continued enrollment declines through 2018-2019, but does not provide a breakout by school. Total OUSD enrollment – excluding charters – fell from 27,344 in 2014-2015 to 26,685 in 2015-2016, and is expected to reach 26,135 in 2018-2019.

Using the current enrollment of 8,936 students, proposed renovations to the four high schools would cost over $32,000 per pupil (excluding interest). By contrast, Orange Lutheran High School completed its own upgrade in 2014 at a cost of less than $12,000 per pupil.

CAFETERIA PLANNING: The cafeteria at private Orange Lutheran, part of a recent $12,000 per pupil upgrade. In the same city, union-controlled Orange Unified wants to spend $32,000 per pupil to renovate four high schools.

CAFETERIA PLANNING: The student cafeteria at private Orange Lutheran High School, part of a recent $12,000 per pupil upgrade. In the same community, union-controlled Orange Unified wants to spend $32,000 per pupil (plus interest) to renovate four high schools.

Nationally, the median cost of building a new high school was $45 million in 2014 according to School Planning and Management (although the median high school housed 1,000 students, about half the number in OUSD schools). This suggests that the cost of renovating OUSD’s four high schools, at an average cost of $72 million each, may not represent a savings over building new facilities.

Further, the district may spend more than $288 million on the renovations if it is able to obtain Proposition 51 matching funds.  If Prop 51 passes in November ,the state’s Office of School Construction will have $9 billion in state general bond proceeds that can be allocated to school districts renovating and building schools.

With a shrinking student population and the potential availability of state matching funds, it appears that the district could borrow much less than $288 million to ensure that high school students have an appropriate learning environment. This raises the question of how the board decided to ask for $288 million in borrowing authority.

The district hired an opinion research firm to poll voters on a possible bond measure. In one survey, the research firm asked voters whether they would approve bond measures at four different tax levels – $25, $29, $34 and $39 per $100,000 of assessed valuation. They found than less than 55% of the electorate would support a bond measure that added $34 or $39 of taxes per $100,000 of assessed value, but that 59% favored a $29 measure and 62% supported a $25 measure. Thus, it would appear that the bond measure was sized on the basis of voter appetite – not on an objective assessment of actual renovation needs and costs.

On October 4, the district’s financial advisor presented a financing plan consistent with the proposed $29 tax increase per $100,000 of assessed value. The plan assumes that $79 million of bonds would be sold shortly after the election and the remaining $209 million would be sold in 2021. Projected debt service rises from $9.5 million in 2017 to $28.8 million in 2046 – representing a 4% annual rate of increase. For the tax rate to stay at $29 per $100,000, assessed valuations will have to also rise by 4% annually. According to the financial advisor’s data, OUSD has experienced annual assessed value increases of 4.26% over the past 15 years. If this trend continues, the tax rate for the new bonds would actually decline slightly – as the tax base expands slightly faster than the debt service costs. If, however, the valuation increase does not materialize, perhaps because of depressed economic conditions or an earthquake, the tax rate would have to increase.

$288 Million Orange USD Bond Measure Would Add to Large Pile of Existing Debt

If Orange Unified voters approve Measure S this November, newly authorized bonds will be added to an already large district debt. A California Policy Center review of OUSD financial reports finds that the district owed $120 million to bond investors as of June 30, 2016.

The largest portion of OUSD’s bond obligations takes the form of an unusual OPEB bond. While many California public agencies have issued bonds to cover their pension obligations, few have borrowed to cover Other Post Employment Benefit obligations. OUSD is a pioneer in this area, but it is not clear whether innovation in OPEB funding is desirable.

In April 2008, OUSD’s board approved the issuance of a variable-rate bond to cover the district’s estimated $93.8 million OPEB obligation. The plan was to invest the proceeds into an actively managed portfolio of bonds and stocks. The bond proceeds and investment gains would be used to pay retiree healthcare expense, freeing the district’s general fund to cover educational expenses.

In May 2008, the district issued $94.8 million of “Index Rate Taxable Retirement Health Benefits Funding Bonds, Series A.” One million dollars of the bond proceeds went to various service providers including California Financial Services, who acted as the financial advisor on the deal for a fee of just over $450,000.

The remaining proceeds were invested in a vehicle called Futuris Public Entity Investment Trust, which is managed by Keenan & Associates. The investment got off to rocky start due to the Great Recession. In the fiscal year ending June 30, 2008, the trust lost $3.3 million; it shed another $7.3 million in the year ending June 30, 2009.

The investment losses exacerbated a fiscal crisis confronting OUSD at the time. The board engaged the state’s Fiscal Crisis and Management Assistance Team to assess district finances. In its report, FCMAT recommended that the board “seek advice from an independent investment advisor regarding strategies to address the decline in OPEB bond program asset values.”

It is not clear from board minutes whether this recommendation was followed, but the stock market rebound that started in 2009 raised the value of OUSD’s investments and relieved its fiscal distress. Last year, Standard and Poor’s upgraded the OPEB bonds from A+ to AA- citing the district’s “very strong available general fund reserves.” The district also benefited from its choice to issue variable rate bonds, with interest rates periodically reset based on changes in the London Interbank Offer Rate (LIBOR). Although banks attempted to manipulate LIBOR, it fell during the Recession and has remained low ever since. Consequently, debt service costs for the OPEB bonds have been lower than expected.

That said, it does not appear the bonds have provided the general fund relief originally intended. Each year the district pays about $2.9 million in debt service on the OPEB bonds, and it remains unclear whether the invested bond proceeds can shoulder the district’s mounting retiree healthcare costs.  In some recent years, the district has transferred additional money into its Retiree Benefits Fund to support OPEB payments.

In addition to the $83 million still outstanding on the district’s OPEB bond, OUSD also owes $28 million on Certificates of Participation and $9 million on Capital Lease obligations. OUSD also has two Mello-Roos districts that have issued bonds. The $12 million in outstanding principal on these Mello-Roos bonds (issued by Community Facilities Districts 2005-1 and 2005-2) is technically not an obligation of the school district, but debt service payments are funded by taxes on certain homes within OUSD.

Officials Ditch Claim About ‘Benefits’ of High Property Taxes

Flyers distributed in Capistrano Unified School District schools and the main office promote the district’s upcoming $889 million property tax increase as a benefit to homeowners.

That claim would appear to be a political response to criticism of Measure M, the controversial bond on the South Orange County district’s November 8 ballot. Critics have said Measure M, which will be paid off by increased property taxes, will dampen home values.

Under the headline “Community Benefits,” the flyer distributed in schools and offices asserts that higher taxes will actually be good for home sales. “We believe that improving neighborhood schools will ultimately increase local property values and add to the real estate market value of homes in our community,” the flyer reads.

The district’s claim that higher property taxes will boost home values is not included in the version posted on the CUSD website.

The headline in the online version is also different – just the word “Community,” not “Community Benefits.”

The flyer was produced for the district by a political consulting firm.

In a legal opinion, California Attorney General Kamala Harris said, “State law prohibits school districts from campaigning in support of a bond measure.” Numerous state courts, including the California Supreme Court, have said government bodies may provide information.

District officials did not respond to several requests for comment on the change. But critics say the change is consistent with the district’s practice of promoting Measure M in ways that come close to breaching the legal standard.

“I believe school district officials have been routinely engaging in illegal express advocacy,” said Rancho Santa Margarita Mayor Tony Beall.

Even that statement is likely to elicit a response from district HQ. Beall and his counterpart, Mission Viejo Mayor Frank Ury, made a similar claim in an August 9 letter to Capistrano Unified officials. The district responded to the letter by voting 6-1 to sue Beall, Ury, and their cities.

Beall said no complaint has been filed.

The South Orange County Economic Coalition, an association of business and other institutions, including the Orange County Association of Realtors and Saddleback College, opposes Measure M. Last month, they announced Measure M “will make prospective home buyers think twice before buying in this District.”

Catrin Thorman is a California Policy Center fall Journalism Fellow. She is a graduate of Azusa Pacific University, and a former Teach for America corps member. 

UPDATE: This article was updated on October 24 to reflect a request for clarification from the South Orange County Economic Coalition. Though that organization opposes Measure M, a spokesperson said some of its members (in this instance, Saddleback Community College and the Orange County Association of Realtors) may not necessarily oppose the measure. —Editors

San Francisco Parcel Tax Opponents Censored by Supervisor, Bureaucrats

 

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Editor’s Note: Members of the Libertarian Party of San Francisco (LPSF) tried and failed to include an opposing argument to an extension and increase of a Community College parcel tax in the Voters Handbook. Here Party Chair Aubrey Freedman describes the process by which the San Francisco Department of Elections silenced not only the LPSF, but anyone opposed to the measure. CPC does not support political parties, but we believe this is an important story about how the deck is often stacked against groups opposing dubious new tax measures.

For the last year or so, CCSF (Community College of San Francisco) bureaucrats have been talking about extending the “temporary” parcel tax the voters approved in 2012.  We were the official opponent of the measure back then, but we were overpowered by the “Save CCSF” movement.  At least we warned the voters.  Now 4 years later, not much has changed at the community college, except enrollment is about 25% lower, but they’re still in need of more “funding”.  Hence the birth of Prop B, a 12-year extension of the tax to 2032 and an increase of $20 from $79 to $99 per parcel per year.

In a recent meeting of ours, one of our members offered to write an opposing argument to Prop B for submission to the DOE (Department of Elections) for the “free” lottery on August 18.  About a week prior to the deadline, we called the DOE for clarification on the pre-empting process, whereby members of the Board of Supervisors get first dibs at being the official opponents of ballot measures.  With all the free publicity and media attention they get just from being on the Board of Supervisors, which they can use for their political agendas, this pre-empting business is a travesty in itself since bona fide organizations and individuals only get the leftovers (paid arguments).  The manager at the DOE told us all official “pre-empters” are listed on the DOE website under “Local Ballot Measure Status”.  With limited resources (ballot measure argument writers), it didn’t make sense to waste time on writing arguments that would be rejected by the DOE on August 18.  Much to our surprise, we noted that Supervisor Aaron Peskin (a left-leaning supervisor) had pre-empted the opposing argument to Prop B.  One of our members joked that perhaps Peskin opposed the tax because it wasn’t high enough.  At any rate, we decided not to submit our member’s solid argument (listed above) on August 18, and we would decide after the lottery what to submit as paid arguments the following Monday.

To our utter shock, when the DOE ran the lottery, DOE Director John Arntz announced that no argument was submitted against Prop B and moved on to the next one.  What happened to Peskin’s opposing argument?  We checked with the DOE the next day, and they confirmed that Peskin was the official opponent but had in fact submitted nothing.

The LPSF reassessed its position, and decided to pay the $764 necessary to submit a paid 282-word argument (which appears at the end of this article).  We waited in line for three hours on August 22 with all the other individuals and groups submitting paid arguments (stations had been set up to streamline the process and handle the expected deluge of paid arguments for 25 local ballot measures, but in typical government fashion, the whole process was hopelessly bottlenecked due to the lack of checkers at the final step, despite an army of government workers sitting around on the taxpayers’ dime), submitted our paperwork, and paid our fee.

Afterwards we paid a visit to the SF Ethics Commission to lodge a formal complaint against Supervisor Peskin.  We were hopeful that an agency with the word “Ethics” in its name might actually be interested in dealing with what looked like abuse of a privilege granted to a public official to silence the opposition.  We were wrong.  Though the bureaucrat we tried to file our complaint with was pleasant and seemed sympathetic, she informed us that the commission has no jurisdiction in a case like this.  She recommended that we go back to the DOE and press them on the issue.  There you have it:  another useless club of bureaucrats on the taxpayers’ backs.  When you really need them for something legitimate, they’ve already checked out.

The plot thickened.  Three days later we received a call from the DOE.  In reviewing all the documents received for the paid arguments, they discovered that Prop B is actually a “district” measure, not a regular ballot measure, and as such no paid argument can be accepted.  They sent us a form to sign to request a refund of the $764 paid for the argument.  Needless to say, we will not be signing any such form any time soon—if at all—as it would signify our agreement with the DOE that all is well, the matter is closed, and the voters will never get to hear the other side of the issue.  The emails between the LPSF and John Arntz flew furiously back and forth for a week or two about the legality of no paid arguments being accepted for “district” measures.  We checked both the state and county election codes regarding this issue and could find nothing forbidding the SF DOE from accepting our paid argument.  In fact, Arntz confirmed, “There is no explicit statement in the state election code stating that paid arguments cannot be submitted”.  Unfortunately, he still insists that they cannot accept our paid argument because the code doesn’t specifically mention paid arguments.

Yet another bombshell dropped about a week ago.  We contacted the newspapers, a law firm, and various individuals in and out of government who might be able to help out.  Only one individual (whose name will remain confidential because that person stepped out on a limb for us) persisted in getting to the bottom of things.  The person found out that actually Peskin had wanted to submit an opposing argument, but he was not allowed to because CCSF is considered a state institution and the Board of Supervisors is not allowed to submit any arguments on state issues.

If that’s the case, why did the DOE list Peskin’s name on their website as the official opponent when he was not allowed to submit such an argument?  Don’t they know their own rules?  These rules are so vague that even the folks who pass one ordinance after another without blinking an eye seemed to have no clue at all as to when they can and can’t pre-empt a ballot measure, so how can the average citizen be expected to know the rules?  This was a monumental blunder on the part of the DOE to have put Peskin’s name up as the opponent when they should have known better—and that blunder ended up discouraging us (and possibly others) from submitting an opposing argument for the lottery.  We went back to Arntz with this latest bit of information; we would imagine this is an embarrassment to the DOE, so we suggested that this could be rectified by printing our paid argument so the voters hear the other side on this issue and making the rules clearer in the future to avoid such hassles.    Not a word back from him.

The voters have a right to hear both sides of this and every ballot measure.  As it appears right now, when the voters take a look at Prop B in the Voters Handbook—if indeed they do take a look in a year with 42 ballot measures—they will see the usual background information, the Controller’s statement, a ¾ page argument by the San Francisco Community College Board of Trustees touting all the wonderful things that CCSF does that warrant an extension and increase of the parcel tax, no rebuttal underneath, and then an almost blank adjoining page stating that no opposing arguments were submitted against this ballot measure.  Even a diligent voter would be inclined to vote YES since no one bothered to speak up against the measure.  If only they really knew!

Our blood is boiling over this issue, and we’re not throwing in the towel yet!  We did submit an official letter to City Attorney Dennis Herrera this week requesting a ruling on this whole issue.  We noted at the end of our letter that the City Attorney’s office protects tenant and consumer rights—and we hope that they will also protect voters’ rights.  We’re not holding our breath.

District has Paid Consultants Over $400k to Promote Bond

State law prohibits government officials from using taxpayer dollars in political campaigns. But on June 8, Keith Weaver of Government Financial Strategies stood before the Capistrano Unified school board, coaching trustees on how to pass an $889 bond measure on the November 8 ballot.

“November elections do better,” said Weaver, whose Sacramento-based firm has been paid at least $400,000 to manage what the district calls an outreach campaign. Weaver went on, telling the board that November is “when we have a lot of turnout. I would encourage us to focus on voter registration and focus on getting people to the polls because turnout helps bond measures.”

Under California law, government officials are allowed to provide information to the public for the purposes of voter education. They are prohibited from engaging in direct campaign efforts for tax increases.

But throughout the state, public officials are blurring the line between information and advocacy – often paying firms like GFS to run point on political campaigns, and especially campaigns involving tax hikes like Capistrano’s Measure M.

Capistrano Unified contracted with GFS for the purpose of “community engagement,” according to district documents. On its website, the company says it operates to assist the public sector in generating revenue – what most people call taxation. GFS’s website provides information on how to organize efforts to pass bond measures such as: “centrally organizing publicity efforts, involving students in volunteer activities, and reaching out to the senior citizen population.”

Capistrano USD has also contracted with another public affairs organization, Los Angeles-based Cerrell. That company’s website boasts Cerrell has “financed billions of dollars of public projects” through its “public communication” efforts. The website highlights Cerrells’ April 2015 role in passing Glendale’s Measure O, a two-percent increase of Glendale’s hotel tax: “strategic guidance, messaging, materials development and multilingual communications successfully educated Glendale voters… While voters rejected the other three measures on the city’s municipal ballot by wide margins, Measure O passed with nearly 60% support.” Cerrell credits the victory to its “comprehensive and compelling public education program.”

Since September, the district has paid Edelman some $24,000. At a September 28 meeting of Capistrano trustees, the district claimed Edelman would not be working on Measure M though documents indicate they’re being paid for “community engagement” efforts from October 1 through December 31. One of the nation’s oldest public relations companies, Edelman has managed marketing for such corporate giants as Hewlett-Packard, Microsoft, Johnson & Johnson, and Starbucks. 

Andrew Heritage is a California Policy Center fall Journalism Fellow. He is a doctoral student in political science at the Claremont Graduate University.

Top 10: Vernon Leads California Cities with More Public Employees Than Residents

For Immediate Release
October 11, 2016
California Policy Center
Contact: Will Swaim
Will@CalPolicyCenter.org
(714) 573-2231

Vernon, California is so famous for its history of corruption that it was the municipal star of season 2 of HBO’s “True Detective” series. Now the diminutive L.A. County town can claim another achievement: Vernon is the only California city with more public employees than residents.

Vernon’s 210 residents are served by 271 city employees, according to data on the California state controller’s website. 

No. 2 Irwindale is a distant second – though just a 30-minute drive (could be hours – depends on traffic in L.A.’s tortuous downtown) from Vernon. In that East Los Angeles County city, there’s one government employee for every one of Irwindale’s 1,415 residents. San Francisco is the only major city on the Top 10, with one government employee for every 22.7 residents. 

Here’s the Top 10:

top10cities Most Public Employees

Public employees in Vernon earn an average of $107,848 (plus benefits of $37,571). That’s much higher than nearby hegemon, Los Angeles, where public employees average $83,356 (plus benefits of $12,620).

Several top Vernon officials earn salaries in excess of $300,000:

Mark Whitworth (City Administrator): $402,335
Daniel Calleros (Police Chief): $361,644
Michael Wilson (Fire Chief): $361,359
Carlos Fandino Jr. (Director of Gas and Electric): $324,354
Andrew Guth (Fire Battalion Chief): $304,243

While many of Vernon’s city employees continue earn six-figure salaries, the average city resident earns far less. Per capita income in 2010 was $19,973. Median household income in 2010 was $38,500 – down dramatically from 2000, when it was over $60,000. According to the 2010 U.S. Census, 5% of the population lived below the federal poverty line. In 2000, it was 0%.

How does the city fund that dramatic gap in income? By taxing utilities for industry in the city. But because Vernon’s utility rates are among the highest in California, many businesses are moving out. That’s going to put pressure on city officials to trim public services – or to capitulate to the logic of history and become part of a neighboring city. How about Bell?

Conor McGarry is a fall Journalism Fellow at California Policy Center. Andrew Heritage contributed data analysis. Source: California state Controller’s Office.

ABOUT THE CALIFORNIA POLICY
The California Policy Center is a non-partisan public policy think tank providing information that elevates the public dialogue on vital issues facing Californians, with the goal of helping to foster constructive progress towards more equitable and sustainable management of California’s public institutions. Learn more at CaliforniaPolicyCenter.org.

Survey Says! How One City Used a 'Poll' to Raise Taxes

On Halloween 2014, Stanton, California, city manager James Box wrote to the city’s residents. City officials were at the end of a year-long campaign to stampede residents toward acceptance of Measure GG, creating a one-cent city sales tax, the first of its kind in Orange County. They had warned residents that failure to approve the new tax would lead to something like the apocalypse.

Just days before the Nov. 4 election, Box spoke to them one last time.

“I’ve received a number of phone calls from Stanton residents about the city’s budget, employees, service challenges, and Measure GG which is on Stanton’s November 4, 2014 ballot,” he wrote.

In the face of obvious public concern, Box said, he was ready to meet residents immediately – or, rather, not immediately, but in three months, long after the election, in a public park clubhouse, on a Friday morning at 9 o’clock.

Box’s nonchalant response to the “number of phone calls” is evidence that the real purpose of the communication was what political consultants call “Get Out the Vote.” That Box invoked his determination to provide “helpful information on issues of interest and concern” and “accountability and transparency” reveal how upside-down City Hall had become: he used the language of open government to obscure his real interests and to shape public concern.

Look for a similar October surprise this year. Residents this year qualified a measure to repeal the 2014 sales tax, and that measure will appear on the city’s Nov. 8 ballot.

City officials paid Lew Edwards Group throughout the first campaign, and it’s likely they drafted the letter that came over Box’s signature. They’re still on contract with the city, running a campaign for which Stanton officials have now paid them well over $100,000.

Papers, please: Spanish-language version of Stanton survey.

Papers, please: Spanish-language version of Stanton survey featuring scary cop.

 

California law allows public officials to provide nonpartisan information to the public in the course of government business. In several high-profile cases, state courts have ruled that public education campaigns like Stanton’s must not be intended to influence the outcome of a political campaign.

The landmark 1976 case Stanson v. Mott established the standard: “A fundamental precept of this nation’s democratic electoral process is that the government may not ‘take sides’ in election contests or bestow an unfair advantage on one of several competing factions. A principal danger feared by our country’s founders lay in the possibility that the holders of governmental authority would use official power improperly to perpetuate themselves.”

Despite that and other court decisions, Stanton officials have run a three-year campaign to persuade its citizens to raise their own taxes – and keep them raised. They’ve paid for that campaign with the public’s money.

The 2014 campaign featured a number of official-looking letters as well as a push-poll in disguise as a community survey. Like Box’s Halloween letter, a push-poll pretends to be one thing while being another. It’s a method of communicating (or pushing) a political message under the guise of a scientific effort to collect public feedback.

The science behind surveys is complex. That’s why it’s fairly easy to determine that the city’s survey wasn’t a survey at all.

The Stanton “Community Feedback Survey,” released to CPC following a Public Records Act request, was mailed to voters in June 2014. It featured photos of children posing alongside firefighters and police. Inside the brochure, city officials warned residents that budget shortfalls would likely lead to cuts in budgets for police and firefighters.

City officials sent a more disturbing version of the push-poll to their Spanish-language residents. That official-looking document features a severe-looking clip-art policeman at the top, and a request for compliance in responding to the survey.

The one-sided push-poll is designed not to solicit meaningful feedback, but rather to lead citizens to answers that support the council’s conclusion: the proposed sales tax is essential to maintaining public-safety. By limiting responses to nine pre-packaged “priorities,” five of which were public-safety related, unsuspecting respondents would easily come to the conclusion that public-safety spending is important and balancing the city budget (which is a constitutional requirement) is good. If framing the response they sought was not enough, Stanton went a step further by selectively placing those photos of children playing around police and firefighters — hardly appropriate for a mere a purely informational campaign.

Despite that framing, some respondents thought outside the box. Nearly one in five told the city other issues were important to them. These respondents were not primarily concerned about public safety spending, but about attracting business, homelessness, code enforcement of noise complaints, and graffiti removal. One respondent suggested encouraging marijuana clinics to relocate to the city; another said, “I wish I were a genius with ideas that could help. Maybe a lot of prayer.”

The result of the survey was not a meaningful assessment of resident’s priorities – not a dispassionate interest in public sentiment – but rather a pseudo-scientific “study” that local politicians then held up as a justification for more public spending along with tax increases.

A month after the June mailer, the city council placed Measure GG, a 1-percent sales tax, on the ballot claiming it would raise $3 million annually to avoid public-safety cuts. As part of its contract with the city, the consultant actually helped draft the measure’s ballot description. Two months after that, in September, city officials mailed residents again – this time to tell them the survey results had been tabulated and showed that huge majorities of residents agreed that public-safety spending critical and so was balancing the city budget.

The city has responded to this coming November’s repeal measure on the ballot with neighborhood meetings called “Talks with the Block” to attack the repeal effort. Once again, the 2014 feedback survey has played a prominent role in that campaign, with city officials insisting that residents asked and voted for the controversial sales tax. And once again, the Lew Edwards Group’s contract with the city ends just days before the election.

Andrew Heritage is a California Policy Center Journalism Fellow. He is a doctoral student in political science at the Claremont Graduate University.