The Mechanics of Pension Reform – Local Actions

Part 2 of 2…

Introduction

In Part One, I enumerated reforms needed at the state level. That list was in part plugging up the “cheats” used to run up the statewide pension deficit of about a trillion dollars. Employee unions control the state legislature, the attorney general, all executive offices and all retirement administrators; therefore I prefaced Part One with an opinion that reform at the state level was and is basically a pipe dream.

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Picturesque Pacific Grove is being destroyed by government unions.

This part will discuss reform at the county and city level only, simply because I have not researched education and special districts sufficiently to include them.

Premise

This analysis is based on the conclusion that current local government defined benefit pension plans are under 50% funded based on market analysis.

The common lament about pension deficits is that it was caused by the 2008-09 investment crash. But most PERL Agencies were under water after the 2001-02 high tech stock market crash. Most pension bonds were issued in exchange for pre 2008 pension unfunded deficits or to fund pension enhancements (Marin and Sonoma counties, for example).

Vallejo filed for Chapter 9 in 2008, before the crash with a market pension deficit of about $400M.

Pacific Grove went from a zero deficit in fiscal 2001 to 2002, to a nineteen million dollar deficit in 2004 to 2005. About 50% of the pension deficit was in the 2%@55 plan for non safety employees and the other 50% for the 3%@50 safety employees. Non-safety 2%@55 plans suffered substantial pension deficits again after the 2008-to 2009 crash and all PERL plans had an additional deficit from poor results in 2013-14. It had a good return for fiscal year 2014 to 2015, but recent results (June 2015 to date) are catastrophic. Based on the size of the 2%@55 deficits, that level of benefits is unsustainable and if it was the highest level of benefits, it would still break all but the very richest agencies.

Contribution rates have doubled and tripled; yet the PERS estimate of the funding level for PERL plans as of fiscal year end 2012-13 is 70.5%, using its assumptions. But financial experts using fair market assumptions – those used competitively – estimate the funded level at well less than 50%, a funded level that PERS has stated was beyond saving.

Based on the above, it is mathematically probable that PEPRA which grants a defined benefit as high as 2.7% at various ages of eligibility will go down like the Titanic, in spite of its prospective limits on the size of maximum benefits. If 2%@55 plans are under water; it means that 2.7% at age 57 plans must fail. PEPRA is a palliative measure that has delayed curative reform.

In CERL agencies, much of its pension debt, including pension bonds, was created between 2002-07, after it had incurred a deficit in 2001-02. In Sonoma county a phony lawsuit about calculating pensionable salary was created. Plaintiffs and defendants then contrived a settlement of the lawsuit that circumvented the public notices of CERL and Govt. code 7507, to grant every full time employee a 3% benefit at some age (between 50 and 60). The reason it was important for the staff to avoid the notice statutes was because compliance would have shown that the increased annual budget costs of the pension enhancements would have violated Article XVI, section 18 of the state constitution, which required a 2/3 vote of the people to approve the enhancements. (The Orange county debt limitation case did not involve the issue of increased annual budget costs, and that is why it lost).

Marin had a similar experience as documented in a precise 2015 grand jury report. The pension deficits in Marin and Sonoma are about a billion dollars each. In each county, the agency lawyers, the supervisors, the unions and staff, the sheriff, DA, et al took no action on the grand jury reports. They had a duty to set aside the illegally adopted pension increases, but did not. The ratification of the illegal pensions was unanimous.

Except for a chapter 9 that modifies pensions and other post-retirement benefits, there is no way out of the financial demise of Sonoma and Marin county and all but the very richest local entities.

Chapter Nine is a Game Changer

Until Judge Klein (in the Stockton Chapter 9) produced a total analysis that showed that employee’s pensions are modifiable in a chapter 9, PERS and the unions claimed pensions were untouchable for a variety of tenuous reasons.

Article I. Section 8 of the U.S. Constitution says “The Congress shall have the power…To establish uniform Rules of Naturalization, and uniform Laws on the subject of Bankruptcies throughout the United States;.” Judge Klein went on to clearly define how pursuant to a Plan of Adjustment in a Chapter 9, pension contracts could be rejected and the obligations modified in a fair and equitable manner along with all of the creditors. Judge Rhodes in the Detroit bankruptcy agreed . The Supremacy clause applies to a chapter 9 and is still the law per the two judges and all neutral experts on the matter. Pensions do not have a special status in a Chapter 9.

In his decision, Judge Klein said: “..it is doubtful that CaLPERS even has standing to defend the City pensions from modifications. CaLPERS has bullied its way about in this case with an iron fist insisting that it and municipal pensions it services are inviable. The bully may have an iron fist, but it turns out to have a glass jaw.”

Karol Denniston, a bankruptcy attorney and chapter 9 expert (SQUIRE Patton Boggs), who followed the Stockton bankruptcy carefully, in one of her several writings about the Stockton decision said: “Klein’s opinion provides a handy road map of how to put pensions on the bargaining table thus creating a more balanced approach to restructuring. That means pensions get talked about at the front end of a case and not at the back end. It also means a city can tackle its restructuring plan by looking at all of the significant liabilities, including a plan that really works.”

“..including a plan that really works.” The elements totally lacking in the Vallejo, Stockton and San Bernardino bankruptcies. Those chapter 9’s were union controlled political bankruptcies that intentionally used all of the available assets to pay for a bankruptcy, while protecting its employee’s million dollar pensions. As of 6/30/2013, San Bernardino had a fair market unfunded pension liability of about $1.05B and was 43.4% funded; Vallejo a $650M unfunded pension liability and 45% funded, and Stockton a $1.3B pension liability. The new losses for the succeeding two years will be daunting. Imagine another recession!

The Political Landscape for Chapter 9 Filings

In all cities and counties you hear the refrain: “another loss like that one and the city or county will be bankrupt.” Therein lies the problem; taxpayers view a chapter nine as worse than slashing services, raising taxes and fees, with a future doomed to more cuts, taxes and fees. Because the three municipal bankruptcies to date were “rigged” in favor of city staff and the unions, the public lacks an example of a successful chapter 9.

Therefore, the first bona-fide chapter nine will be critical so that it will encourage other agencies to negotiate from a position of strength. Cities and counties must comply with Myers, Milias and Brown, but any deal that leaves the agency in a defined benefit plan is off the table. If that goal is achieved, there is much to talk about.

The key issue is the level of adjustment to be made to pensions so that employees and retirees will receive a reasonable pension? Unless the taxpayers are convinced that retirees and employees are not taken advantage of, it will not support a bona-fide chapter 9 in bankruptcy.

Pension Adjustments in a Pre-chapter 9 Settlement or in a Plan of Adjustment Must Be Fair and Equitable

Government agencies usually do not belong to the Social Security system. Additionally, PERS and CERL systems do not have an insured component to fill in for pensions modified in a bankruptcy. In chapter 11’s and 7s, canceled pension benefits are often replaced by the federal pension insurance system. So modifying pensions in a chapter 9 is a serious business and must not only appear to be fair, but in fact be fair.

On the one-hand an egregious PERL and CERL system has already caused massive tax increases and prop. 218 fees with a dramatic drop in the number of employees and service levels. As a game-wrecker, prop. XIII dwarfs it by comparison. On the other hand, retirees are not entitled to million dollar annuities, but should receive reasonable pensions for their service. Mathematically, the status quo is not an option. Convincing taxpayers that the modifications are essential but fair is the key to electing a legislative majority with the support to negotiate pension reform from a position of strength. That strength is the right to modify pensions in a chapter 9.

The opposition to a chapter 9 will be massive. In addition to PERL and CERL, the unions will invest millions in opposition. More importantly, the agency lawyers, managers and administrators will use agency monies for store-bought legal opinions that pretend that modifying pensions along with other debt is illegal and bad (like Pacific Grove, Sonoma and Marin county regarding illegal pension adoptions). So if a reform majority is elected, it must replace those who fight for the status quo no matter what. Current attorneys, managers/administrators must go to be replaced by contract experts during the financial emergency.

In order to elect a legislative majority of pension reformers, a lengthy public relations plan is an absolute prerequisite. That program must analyze the outstanding liability for pensions, including pension bonds, and then postulate reasonable modifications for the affected retirees and employees.

Older retirees with lower pensions should not suffer modifications. The younger retirees with massive retirements should be cut to as much as 2 times the social security maximum (about $60,000 per year). The goal is to provide a reasonable retirement for those affected, and to arrive at a plan of adjustment that permits a city or county to repair its roads, sewers, water systems, etc. while providing amenities for every age group (senior, recreational, library, etc) without a separate levy or fee in addition to property, sales and franchise taxes.

In cities like Pacific Grove and counties like Marin and Sonoma, the press is a huge problem. In Monterey County no news source understands the magnitude of the pension conundrum.

In Marin and Sonoma, the issue is treated superficially by the press, but the news media does not portray the magnitude of the deficits together with the illegality of it all so that the reader understands that taxpayers have been defrauded to the tune of a billion dollars. Without a chapter 9 the pension deficits will grow in Sonoma and Marin to one and a half and then two billion dollars and so on. Only chaos can follow such incredible juvenile behavior by all involved. Even reform groups fail to shout out the critical nature of the problem. If the ordinary taxpayer understood the situation, electing competent legislative majorities and reform would follow.

In Monterey County, if you asked a city council member about the size of the city pension deficit, it would be confused. In Pacific Grove they would admit that it was bad, but believe it is curable. But if you told a member of the Carmel council that the city pension debt per household was $24,000, it would be curious about whether that was good or bad. Carmel has so much revenue, it does not concern itself about whether it gets its money worth. My point is that the prospect for pension reform varies from agency to agency, but there is NO avenue to inform the citizens of Seaside, Salinas, Pacific Grove and other communities of the continuing decline in the quality of life in their community; and that a bona fide chapter 9 could make them free. Therefore Reform groups must educate the press, but also provide bi-weekly or monthly pamphlets by mail to citizens so that they can use their vote to defend against the pension tsunami by electing bona fide pension reformers to their city council (or board of supervisors in counties). It will require a sizeable flow of cash.

Paying For a Chapter 9

According to a reliable source, the legal costs in the Stockton chapter 9 exceeded $15M. Costs for experts added a significant sum. For a residential entity like Pacific Grove (15,599 residents) it could be as much as $6M. If a city has pension and other bonds that will be modified in the bankruptcy, the annual payments may be a source of funds to pay for the bankruptcy. Because a modification of pensions or OPEB is contemplated, cash from those sources may be available.

There has not been a bona fide chapter 9 in California; therefore, a material modification of pensions lacks guidelines; but it will be based on federal bankruptcy principles, not state law. According to one highly qualified chapter 9 expert it is important that the PERL or CERL contracts NOT be terminated until after the 9 filing in order to prevent a lien claim by the pension plans.

Qualifying For a Chapter 9

In California, a municipality, like a city or county, is qualified for chapter 9 treatment if it is “insolvent” and “desires to effect a plan to adjust such debts” and has complied with Government code section 53760 et seq. That section provides for a choice to pursue a neutral evaluation process in an attempt to obtain a compromise, or, the local public entity may declare a state of emergency pursuant to Government code Section 53760.5.

Generally, the local agency will qualify if it can show it is “unable to pay its debts, or unable to pay its debts as they come do” (cash insolvency). Cash insolvency may include charges that are not immediately due, but are imminent, such as increases in annual pension contributions and annual pension bond payments, sewer debts, etc. Unfunded pension liabilities will probably not carry the day, except to the extent they will become cash obligations through rate increases. This is a complex area, beyond the scope of this article, except to again make the point that local entities need experts that are not subject to the bias and influence of staff; otherwise, the advice from staff will be, “you can’t touch our pensions” and it will advise a “rigged” chapter 9 like Vallejo, Stockton and San Bernardino.

Alternatives to a Bona fide Chapter 9

Insolvency may be delayed by massive salary reduction, staff and service cuts, new taxes and fees and so on; but such a process cannot promote sufficient financial healing to permit a reasonable level of services at a reasonable cost, or avoid massive deficits. Stockton had a $7M deficit for 2014. So much for its chapter 9.

The “police power” rule of contract law is theoretically available. That rule provides that the state police powers allow modification of contracts when it is necessary to protect the general public welfare. And if that power is extant, does it extend to local agencies? I don’t have the answer, except to note that the California government as now constituted would never use the power, and if attempted by a local agency, the cost for legal representation by reformers is too great.

A better choice is “The Kern Doctrine.” In Kern v City of Long Beach and later in Allen v City of Long Beach, the California supreme court determined that a Charter provision granted employees a vested pension right and in Allen, concluded that the right extended to “work not yet performed.” But in doing so, especially in Kern it noted its second rule, that in a case where the pension system was financially broken, the local entity could make reasonable modifications to vested rights and no off-set was required. In Kern it noted several examples that it had permitted; in one case it allowed a benefits reduction from 2/3 of salary to 1/2 for all employees who had not yet retired. In Allen, the court noted that in that case the financial integrity of the pension system was not in question, so any reductions in pensions required a corresponding off-set. Then it immediately noted again that it was NOT a case where integrity of the system was in issue, thereby reaffirming the Kern doctrine that vested rights could be modified without off-set to save the pension plan..

Hundreds of local entities now have pension plans that are broken with no chance to pay the benefits promised. In 2014, Moody’s released a statement that Vallejo was again insolvent because of pension promises and needed to go into a new chapter 9 to shed pension obligations. It warned that Stockton and San Bernardino needed to shed pension obligations or would again become insolvent after its chapter 9.

There is now a “perfect storm “ for pension reduction under the “Kern Doctrine,” but most lawyers simply do not understand it because they read Allen, without reading Kern. Kern gives an example of the exercise of the police powers by a local entity to protect the public welfare. Entities with impossible pension deficits, like Oakland, San Jose, Pacific Grove, Salinas, King City, Marin and Sonoma counties, etc., etc. could modify pensions for employees to save their plans from insolvency. Read Kern!

Anticipating the Opposition’s Tactics

The gimmick used by Stockton to justify not modifying pensions in its Chapter 9 bankruptcy was a claim that it would be unable to recruit and retain safety and other experts, particularly police; and it already had a raging crime fest on its hands. In fact, it had depleted its police department because of raging pension costs arising from excessive million dollar pensions and the 2008 to 2009 financial crash. Ironically, its manager spread the theme that Stockton could not hire and retain qualified people across the board without the million dollar pensions; then he retired? He was hired by San Bernardino to spread the same theme for its bankruptcy.

Despite claims that police departments cannot recruit new officers without 3%@50 pension benefits, there are over 150 local entities in California with police receiving a 2%@50 pension and they fill positions readily. Until about 2003, almost all local agencies were 2%@50 and there was an overflow of qualified applicants. The age 50 level is much too low, but it is there, created by greed. The claimed shortage arose because of the fraudulent adoption of 3%@50 in 1999; now they naturally seek a 3%@50 annuity and refuse to believe that it has destroyed representative government.

More troubling about the claimed police shortage are allegations that police departments like San Jose discourage applicants and certification schools to create a shortage. But the critical component of the police shortage theme is the inability to gain the truth about the number of applicants for open positions. Somehow it was learned that Stockton had numerous applications for its police force. To counter, its manager wrote a guest editorial in the Sac Bee and said only one in a hundred certificated police applicants could qualify as a Stockton police officer (Yes,he really said that!).

Additionally thousands of police officers were laid off after the financial crisis. Where are they? If you make a records request about applications for open positions, you will feel you are on a railroad by the response. The key is to make the staff produce its evidence of a shortage and that objection should go away. If not, can they really argue that the entity must go broke to maintain the status quo! No. To the extent that high crime cities have a genuine component to its shortage, it will need an on-the-job training plan to fill vacancies at an affordable cost. Ex MPs are a good source for the program.

The other response to pension modification goes to the heart of the public reluctance and lack of information about the issue. The benefits were promised and now they are to be reduced. There are many arguments that should mitigate that reluctance:

(1)  The assets in the DB plan belong to the employees and will not be used except to pay pensions. If a plan is 30% unfunded, the 70% will provide a reasonable retirement if the defined benefit plan is eliminated going forward;

(2)  Pensions exceeding 2%@55 and 2%@50 for safety, were obtained by PERS and local entity fraud;

(3)  Compared to social security, the pensions are much too high, by three to four times;

(4)  Compared to the private sector, the pensions are too high;

(5)  The pension promises were based on unrealistic market returns;

(6)  Each employees union representative was part of the pension scam and unions control PERS;

(7)  Per the California Supreme court employees are only entitled to a “reasonable” pension, not a specific formula;

(8)  Spiking and other illegal activities contributed to the crisis;

(9)  The cost of pensions has curtailed government services, contribute to rising crime and is a dagger to education. Even community colleges can no longer meet demand;

(10)  Deficits compound at 7.5% a year. There is no revenue defense to that fact, so services will continue to suffer due to a lack of funds because of increased pension costs;

(11)  After the defined benefit plan is discontinued in whole or part, employees will be part of the social security system, plus a defined contribution plan, a hybrid system providing fair and financially sustainable retirement security;

(12)  Thanks to the work of Dr. Joe Nation, director of The Stanford Institute For Economic Policy Research and the financial reporting of David Crane of “Govern for California,” reformers have two sources of accurate information about the true state of the pension crisis; impeaching charts used by PERS to mislead the public about the irremediable nature of the pension deficits.

Opponents of reform may respond that Prop. 13 contributed to the crisis. But since prop. 13, sales taxes have increased by 6% and income taxes by 5% and more than make up for lost revenue. If we assume that without Prop. 13 property taxes would be 2% rather than the 1% limit (a doubling), property values would drop proportionally because the higher tax eliminates purchase money. If opponents blame Prop. 13, and they will, polls indicate that voters oppose repealing Prop. 13. Given a choice they will cancel the defined benefit plans and save their communities.

Would a bona fide Chapter 9 that eliminated the entity defined benefit plan reduce its borrowing power going forward? Pension bonds and unfunded pension deficits would be reduced and deficits eliminated, providing cash flow going forward. Entities could fix infrastructure with bond money and the bondholders would have confidence in re-payment because of the improved balance sheet. Using Sonoma County as an example: would bond issuers rather lend to it with its billion dollar pension deficit, or with much of that deficit eliminated?

SUMMARY

(1)  Defined benefit pension plans for government employees are mathematically destined to fail;

(2)  The three chapter 9’s to date did not modify pensions and according to Moody’s, Vallejo is once again insolvent and Stockton and San Bernardino will suffer the same fate for failing to modify pensions in its chapter 9 cases;

(3)  The law is clear that California local entities may modify pensions and other post employment benefits in a chapter 9 plan of adjustment;

(4)  If a local entity has great voter support for pension reform, it may reduce pensions pursuant to the supreme court’s “Kern Doctrine” in order to restore some vital services without a chapter 9; but PERL and CERL administrators may oppose such a plan, forcing a chapter 9.

(5)  Because there has not been a chapter 9 in California wherein a local entity has requested pension modification, there is new legal ground that must be covered, but that is the nature of legal solutions. In the case of pension deficits, a chapter 9 in bankruptcy modifying pensions as part of a plan of adjustment is the only solution. There is no other conceivable reform that can scratch the surface of the problem.

(6)  Modifications to pensions must be fair, taking into account that SB 400 was adopted based on fraudulent representations about its cost.

 *   *   *

Read part one “The Mechanics of Pension Reform – State Actions,” December 22, 2015

Read Kern v City of Long Beach, and Allen v City of Long Beach.

*   *   *

About the Author:  John M. Moore is a resident of Pacific Grove, Ca. He is a licensed member of the California State Bar (#34749) and a member of the “Public Law” section of the State Bar. He is retired and no longer practices law, but has Lexis/Nexis for research. John graduated from San Jose State College with majors in Political Science and Economics (summa cum laude). He then received a JD from The Stanford School of Law and practiced business and trial law for 40 years before retiring. In 1987, he was the founding partner of a Sacramento law firm that he formed in 1987 to take advantage of the increased bankruptcies brought about by the Tax Act of 1986. Although he did not file and manage bankruptcy cases, he represented clients in numerous litigation matters before the bankruptcy court, including several cases before judge Klein, the current judge of the Stockton bankruptcy case. He is an admirer of Judge Klein, for his ability and accuracy on the law. As managing partner, he understood the goals of bankruptcy filings and its benefits and limitations.

Note to readers:  During 2012 author John Moore published the “final” chapter of “The Fall of Pacific Grove” in an four part series published between October 20th and November 9th:

The Fall of Pacific Grove – A Primer on Vested Rights
 – The Final Chapter, Part 1, October 20, 2015

The Fall of Pacific Grove – The City’s Tepid Defense of the Vested Rights Lawsuit
– The Final Chapter, Part 2, October 27, 2015

The Fall of Pacific Grove – The Judge’s Ruling
– The Final Chapter, Part 3, November 2, 2015

The Fall of Pacific Grove – The Immediate Future
– The Final Chapter, Part 4, November 9, 2015

During 2014 author John Moore published the first chapter of “The Fall of Pacific Grove” in an eight part series published between January 7th and February 24th. For a more complete understanding of the history, read the entire earlier series:

The Fall of Pacific Grove – How it Began, and How City Officials Fought Reform
 – Part 1, January 7, 2014

The Fall of Pacific Grove – How City Thwarted Reform, and CalPERS Squandered Surpluses
 – Part 2, January 14, 2014

The Fall of Pacific Grove – CalPERS Begins Calling Deficits “Side Funds,” Raises Annual Contributions
 – Part 3, January 21, 2014

The Fall of Pacific Grove – Outsourcing of Safety Services Causes Increased Pension Deficits
 – Part 4, January 28, 2014

The Fall of Pacific Grove – Anti-Pension Reform Mayor Claims to Favor Reed Pension Reform
 – Part 5, February 3, 2014

The Fall of Pacific Grove – Privately Owned Real Property are the Only Assets to Pay for Pensions
 – Part 6, February 11, 2014

The Fall of Pacific Grove – The Cover-Up by the City After the Hidden Actuarial Report Surfaced in 2009
 – Part 7, February 18, 2014

The Fall of Pacific Grove – Conclusion: The “California Rule” Cannot Stand

2 replies
  1. Ken Churchill says:

    Here is an article I wrote on the Sonoma County illegal pension increases 3 years ago. I sent this to all our supervisors and nothing has happened.

    http://unionwatch.org/the-sonoma-county-retroactive-pension-increase-gross-incompetence-or-billion-dollar-scam/

    Thank you John for adding the fact that the increase was initiated by a phony lawsuit. That lawsuit’s settlement agreement shows was against the retirement association claiming the sheriffs should be paid a pension on the county’s contribution towards their healthcare and the county’s pickup of their pension contribution, if you can believe that.

    But then the settlement by the retirement association created the new benefit formulas which they do not have the power to do. Only a Board of Supervisors can change benefit formulas with a board resolution and only after they have calculated the cost and notified the taxpayers. That never happened.

    In addition, the lawsuit against the retirement association was defended by Deputy County Counsel Neil Baker who violated the state’s conflict of interest laws by defending the case since he was a member of the retirement association and stood to benefit from the outcome. Neil not only who threw the case and awarded the additional pay items as pensionable but he awarded himself and all his cohorts 50% increases in their pensions for life. Something that was not even asked for in the lawsuit. After that he retired collecting $146,000 per year with his enhanced pension and was then rehired by the retirement association to be their counsel and over the past decade was paid an additional $2 million for his “service”.

    As John points out, we need investigative reporting to expose these crimes. Without them becoming known no one is protecting us and no one knows what is happening. That has to change.

  2. Tough Love says:

    John, Nice follow-up to Part 1.

    Two items that deserve some clarification:
    (1) You stated …”Government agencies usually do not belong to the Social Security system.”

    My understanding is that nationally, roughly 75% of Public Sector workers do in fact participate in Social Security, though likely a lower percentage in CA because CA’s teachers do not participate in SS where many do in other States. Clearly those who do vs do not should be treated (via reform measures) to bring them “together” after reform, but too often, Taxpayers are talked into dismissing pension reforms altogether because the impacted agency does not participate in SS. Of course when such agency’s (an example being Police) workers typically retire with AVERAGE pension 5+ times greater than the AVERAGE SS pensions, such argument are disingenuous in the extreme, and should be called-out as such.

    (2) Under your sub-heading ….”Anticipating the Opposition’s Tactics”, your first numbered item was:

    “(1) The assets in the DB plan belong to the employees and will not be used except to pay pensions. If a plan is 30% unfunded, the 70% will provide a reasonable retirement if the defined benefit plan is eliminated going forward;”

    I’m guessing that you were simple “tired” when you wrote that and suspect that you meant that only honoring the funded 70% would provide a reasonable retirement. I sure you know that ….”if the defined benefit plan is eliminated going forward” (i.e., for FUTURE service) …. do so would not by itself eliminate the obligation to still pay the pension associated with the unfunded 30% PAST service accruals (absent a CH 9 ruling enabling the agency to do so).

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