Marin County Discloses Debt Balances on Property Tax Bills

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

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

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

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QUESTIONS RAISED BY “MARIN COUNTY DEBT AND FINANCIAL DATA”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

RECOMMENDATIONS

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

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

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

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

REFERENCES

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

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

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

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

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

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

Seattle’s Minimum Wage: Bad Hygiene and Lower Wages

California’s minimum wage is set to gradually increase to $15 by 2022, following in the footsteps of minimum wage pioneer city Seattle.

Unfortunately, the unintended consequences of Seattle’s minimum wage experiment are starting to show, both in deteriorating restaurant quality and in decreasing wages for low-income workers.

According to the latest study, Seattle’s 2016 minimum wage hike approved by the Seattle City Council appears to have pushed restaurants to deal with rising labor costs by cutting corners in hygiene. Researchers at Ball State University in Indiana concluded that overall restaurant health code violations increased by 6.4% and less severe violations increased by 15.3% with each dollar increase of the minimum wage.

Bad hygiene is gross, but it isn’t the only serious consequence of Seattle’s minimum wage increases. Researchers from the University of Washington published in June their finding that Seattle’s increase from $11 to $13 coincided with a decrease in actual wages for low income workers – the exact opposite of the policy’s intended result.

According to the study, the 2016 increase to $13 led to a 9% decrease in hours worked at low-income jobs, while hourly wages rose by 3%. This means that on average people in low-wage jobs earned around $125 less per month than they earned before. Instead of helping people in low wage jobs, significantly raising the minimum wage in Seattle has actually hurt their earning ability!

My Dear Randi,

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Increasing Water Supply Must Balance Conservation Measures

In a recent commentary tax fighter Jon Coupal exposed one of the hidden agendas behind recently Senate Constitutional Amendment 4 recently introduced in the California Legislature. Coupal writes: “They wish to charge those water users they perceive as “bad” more per gallon than those users they perceive as “good.” The beauty of “cost of service” rates, however, is that they are fair for everyone: You pay for what you use.”

California’s consumers already endure tiered rates for electricity consumption, where if their electricity consumption goes beyond approved levels, they pay more per kilowatt-hour. At least with electricity, there is some rationale for tiered pricing, because when demand exceeds capacity the utility has to purchase power from the grid at the spot market rate. But in the case of water that’s a much harder case to make. Water prices are negotiated far in advance by water utilities.

The reason utilities want to charge tiered rates is so they can discourage “over-consumption” of water, in order for them to avoid running out of water during times of severe drought. What happened repeatedly over the past few years was that suppliers to many regional water districts could not meet their contracted delivery obligations. Understandably, water districts want to reduce total annual consumption so, if necessary, they can get by with, for example, only 60% of the amount of imported water they would otherwise be contractually entitled to.

Punitive rates for “overuse,” however, will effectively ration water, as only a tiny minority of consumers will be wealthy enough to be indifferent to prohibitively high penalties.

There is a completely different way for water districts to address this challenge. An optimal solution to California’s water supply issues should incorporate not only conservation, but also increasing supply. And to fund new supplies of water, utilities should experiment with tiered pricing that only incorporates moderate price increases. Doing this would mean a large portion of consumers will not be deterred from “overuse,” and the extra revenue they provide the utility could be used for infrastructure investment to increase supplies of water through myriad solutions – including runoff capture and enhanced aquifer storage, sewage treatment to potable standards, seawater desalination, and off-stream reservoir storage.

The following images excerpted from a spreadsheet provide a simplistic but illuminating example of how reasonable tiered pricing could, in aggregate, fund massive investment in additional supplies of water. In the first example, below, with assumptions highlighted in yellow, are water consumption profiles for a regional water utility district that engages in punitive pricing for overuse of water. As can be seen in the large yellow highlighted block to the center left, when unit costs for water are tripled for those consumers who “overuse” water, the number of “over-users” is a small 4% minority of all consumers, and the number of “super-users” is a minute 1% of all consumers. Consequently, the utility only collects $900,000 per month, barely 5% of its revenue from consumers, from households that are deemed to have overused water.

FINANCIAL IMPACT TO UTILITY OF PUNITIVE PRICING FOR “OVERUSE”

The next example, below, shows hypothetical consumption profiles for a regional water utility district that engages in reasonable pricing for overuse of water. Again, as can be seen in the the large yellow highlighted block to the center left, when unit costs for water are increased by 50% (instead of 300%) for those consumers who “overuse” water, the number of “over-users” is a significant 20% minority of all consumers, and the number of “super-users” is a substantial additional 10% of all consumers. Consequently, the utility collects $3,000,000 per month, 14% of its revenue from consumers, from households that are deemed to have overused water.

FINANCIAL IMPACT TO UTILITY OF REASONABLE PRICING FOR “OVERUSE”

This is a simplistic analysis, requiring caveats too numerous to mention. Utilities get much of their revenue from property taxes, not from consumer ratepayers, and fixed service fees still constitute most of the amount that appears on a typical household water bill. The utility’s internal cost for water, pegged here at $.20 per CCF, is actually calculated through a maddeningly complex and somewhat subjective cost-accounting exercise that takes into account the amortization of capital costs for treatment, storage and distribution facilities, operating costs, as well as actual contracted purchases from, for example, the California State Water Project. But there is a deeper debate over principles that these examples are designed to emphasize, one with profound consequences for our quality of life in the coming decades.

By implementing severe financial penalties to utility customers who “overuse” their water, electricity, or anything else, state regulators are effectively imposing rationing on all but extreme high-income households. Complying in the face of punitive rates for overuse requires consumers to submit to undesirable lifestyle adjustments including short duration, low-flow showers, low flow faucets that require long wait times for hot water to arrive through the pipes and long wait times to fill pots, remotely administered, algorithmically managed “affordable” times for washing dishes and laundry, mandated purchases of expensive new internet enabled appliances that are ridiculously difficult to simply turn on and use, require regular warranty payments because they break down so much, with annual fees imposed to update their software.

We don’t have to live this way. California’s residential households consume less than 6% of the water diverted and used in California for environmental, agricultural, and commercial purposes, yet by far they pay the most to maintain and upgrade this infrastructure. Indoor water overuse is a myth, as all indoor water is either being completely recycled by the sewage treatment utility, or should be. Raising rates causes consumers to under-use water, despite most of a utility’s costs being for the operations infrastructure, creating a vicious cycle of rate increases to maintain sustainable revenues. And when consumer water use is crammed down further and further, the overall system of water infrastructure is progressively downsized until there is not enough resiliency and overcapacity in the system to absorb a major disruption such as an earthquake, a dam failure, or acts of terrorism.

The conventional wisdom in California as expressed in policies enforced by an overwhelming majority of Democrats in the State Legislature is that we must live in “an era of limits.” But this motto, originally coined in the 1970’s by Governor Jerry Brown, is in direct conflict with the spirit and culture of Californians, as exemplified by the dreams they offer the world from Hollywood and the miraculous innovations they offer the world from Silicon Valley. The idea that California’s legislators cannot enact policies designed to increase supplies of water and energy enough to make life easier on the citizens they serve is absurd, and must be challenged.

Ed Ring is the vice president of policy research for the California Policy Center.