Local Voters Uphold Utility Tax in Sierra Madre

Voters in tiny, affluent Sierra Madre, three square miles of leafy neighborhoods nestled at the foot of the majestic San Gabriel mountains, had an opportunity earlier this week to repeal their utility tax. As reported in the San Gabriel Valley Tribune, by a margin of more than four-to-one, they decided to keep their tax.

Opponents of the utility tax repeal pointed out that Sierra Madre has very low per capita sales tax revenue (claiming 460th out of 481 California cities), and therefore depends on their utility tax. And in any case, the numbers are vanishingly small. Had Sierra Madre’s citizens voted to repeal their utility tax, it would have eliminated $2.6 million, or 24%, from the city’s annual revenue.

The real question facing Sierra Madre, and all of California’s cities, isn’t whether or not to repeal various local taxes, but how many new taxes to approve in the next few years. As documented by CalTax, every election cycle, hundreds of new local taxes are proposed, and they usually pass. For example, in November 2016, 224 new local tax increases were proposed, and 71% of them were approved by voters.

How these measures get approved by voters is nicely exemplified by the Sierra Madre ballot. Measure D, at the top of the ballot, presented the question to voters: “Shall the City of Sierra Madre adopt a measure repealing the City’s Utility Users Tax in its entirety?

But below Measure D on this ballot was Advisory Measure A, which read “If Measure “D” passes, repealing the Utility Users’ Tax and eliminating approximately 24% or $2.6 million of the City’s General Fund Revenues, should the City Council eliminate paramedic services, reduce and outsource police services and library services, reduce code enforcement, and fire suppression services, in addition to other reductions which will be required to balance the budget?

SIERRA MADRE SPECIAL ELECTION BALLOT – 4/10/2018

If that isn’t an anti Measure D campaign message masquerading as an “advisory measure,” then there’s a bridge for sale in San Francisco, and the moon is made of green cheese.

It’s worth wondering why the pro-repeal campaign didn’t just try to reverse Sierra Madre’s recent utility tax increase, instead of calling for its total repeal. After all, that tax has been in place since 1993. But in 2016, Sierra Madre’s voters approved an increase in the utility tax rate from 8% to 10%. Rolling back that increase, which equates to about a half-million per year in additional tax collections, would not have broken the city’s finances. It could have been marketed for what it would have been – a way to pressure Sierra Madre’s elected officials to finally confront their escalating pension payments.

ALL NEW TAXES ARE TO PAY MORE FOR GOVERNMENT PENSIONS

Beyond any serious debate by now is the fact that payments to CalPERS by California’s cities are set to nearly double in the next six years, from a projected total of $3.1 billion in 2017-18 to over $5.8 billion in 2024-25. This is based on recent “Public Agency Actuarial Valuation Reports” issued by CalPERS actuaries for each of their participating agencies, summarized here by the California Policy Center.

In the case of Sierra Madre, this year they will pay $1.5 million to CalPERS, which is 13.8% of their total general fund revenues. By 2024, they will be paying CalPERS $2.2 million, or over 20% of their total general fund revenues.

One in five dollars of Sierra Madre’s tax revenue will be paying for pensions. And that does NOT include (1) any payments for other post-employment benefits, (2) any increases to those payments based on investments deciding not to perform as well in the next ten years as they have in the past ten years (imagine that), or (3) any additional payments if Sierra Madre happens to have issued “pension obligation bonds” in prior years. We didn’t look into this, but plenty of cities have succumbed to the temptation to borrow money to make their pension payments.

One possible source of relief for this comes in the form of the CalFire vs CalPERS case that is working its way through the California Supreme Court. There is a possibility that a ruling could undermine the “California Rule,” which to-date has been aggressively – and successfully – interpreted by government union attorneys to mean that pension benefits cannot be diminished, even for work not yet performed.

If the outcome of that case tilts in favor of reform, you might see this “advisory measure” on a local ballot, right beneath the next proposed tax increase.

HYPOTHETICAL SIERRA MADRE SPECIAL ELECTION BALLOT
(including “advisory measure” that proposes reducing pension benefits)

That would be the day. When immediately below a proposed tax increase, an “advisory measure” proposes to reduce pension benefits if the tax increase does not pass.

And that certainly would not be an anti-tax campaign message, would it?

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Resources for California’s Pension Reformers

Stampede: a mass movement of people at a common impulse.
–  Merriam Webster dictionary

The pension reform stampede is about to finally overrun California’s political status-quo for three reasons.

(1) Pension debt is out of control. While official estimates are slightly lower, most reasonable estimates put California’s total unfunded liabilities for state and local pensions at around $500 billion.

(2) Required agency contributions are set to double. California’s two largest pension systems, CalPERS and CalSTRS, have both announced that within the next few years their participating agencies are going to have to at least double the amount they contribute to pensions.

(3) Active cases before the California Supreme Court, set to be decided within a year, will likely enable more meaningful pension reform measures at the state and local level.

Serious pension reform may soon become politically feasible, and it’s about time.

An indicator of how serious politicians are finally taking California’s pension crisis is exemplified by the California League of Cities Pension Project. A consensus is belatedly forming within this powerful organization that absent real reform, California’s public sector pensions are not financially sustainable.

Here are some of the groups and individuals in California who are either providing vital information, or engaging in activist efforts for pension reform:

A good place to start is the pensions section of Transparent California, a five year old website that has compiled the most comprehensive database of individual state and local government compensation and pension information possibly in the U.S., and certainly in California. On Transparent California’s All Pensions page, users can search through millions of individual pensions. On its Pension Plans page, users can search for recipient information by pension system. On its Last Employer page, users can search for recipient information by the last employer.

At least four regional groups scattered across California focus exclusively on pension reform, or devote a considerable amount of their resources to the issue of pension reform. From north to south, they are: Citizens for Sustainable Pension Plans (Marin County), New Sonoma (Sonoma County), the Contra Costa County Taxpayers Association, and the Ventura County Taxpayers Association. There are undoubtedly other regional organizations that have done important pension reform work – any suggestions for additions to this list are welcome.

Three heroic individuals who have dedicated years of volunteer time to educating the public, the media, and policymakers about public sector pensions are John Dickerson, publisher of YourPublicMoney.com, Jack Dean, publisher of PensionTsunami.com, and Ed Mendel’s CalPensions.com. If you want to learn the intricacies of pension finance, what John Dickerson has created is as good a place as any. If you want a daily archive of links to every significant report on pensions in the U.S., Jack Dean’s meticulously curated Pension Tsunami website is not only the best place to look, it’s the only place to find that information. Ed Mendel’s CalPensions offers deep analysis of pension developments in California.

Stanford University’s Institute for Policy Research issues regular assessments of California’s pension challenges including the recent Pension Math: Public Pension Spending and Service Crowd Out in California, 2003-2030, October 2017, and California Pension Tracker 2.0, an interactive database that reveals, among other things, by city or county, the total market pension debt per household. The Los Angeles based Reason Foundation presents ongoing analysis of the impact of pensions on the Pension Reform section of their website.

State-focused and national activist organizations in California include the Sacramento based Retirement Security Initiative, which is active in states across the U.S. fighting for pension reform, and the San Diego based Reform California, working for pension reform at the state level.

For continuing dialog with pension reformers the Facebook communities created by the Citizens for Sustainable Pension Plans and Californians for Pension Reform are both very good. The California Policy Center also has a Facebook page that includes extensive coverage of pensions, along with esposes of the most powerful special interest that opposes pension reform, government unions.

For years the California Policy Center has followed the pension crisis in California, and over the past few months has released several reports that, in aggregate, provide a reasonably complete summary of the challenges Californians face to get public employee pension costs under control.

Those reports, with titles that explain the specific topics, are the following: The Underrecognized, Undervalued, Underpaid, Unfunded Pension Liabilities, March 2018 – How to Restore Financial Sustainability to Public Pensions, February 2018 – How to Assess Impact of a Market Correction on Pension Payments, February 2018 – California Government Pension Contributions Required to Double by 2024 – Best Case, January 2018 – Did CalPERS Use Accounting “Gimmicks” to Enable Financially Unsustainable Pensions?, January 2018 – How Much More Will Cities and Counties Pay CalPERS?, January 2018 – If You Think the Bull Market Rescued Pensions, Think Again, December 2017 – Did CalPERS Fail to Disclose Costs of Historic Bump in Pension Benefits?, October 2017 – Coping With the Pension Albatross, October 2017 – and How Fraudulently Low “Normal Contributions” Wreak Havoc on Civic Finances, September 2017.

On the website for the California Policy Center’s “CLEO” (California Local Elected Officials) project, additional policy briefs are available to assist pension reformers, including: Graphics to Explain the Pension Crisis to Colleagues and Constituents, December 2017 – Explaining the Pension Crisis – Additional Graphics, December 2017 – Pension Questions To Ask Your Agency’s CFO, Actuary & Auditor, December 2017 – Did Your Agency Comply with the Law When Increasing Pension Formulas? – October 2017 –  Pension Reform – The San Jose Model, September 2017 – and Pension Reform – The San Diego Model, August 2017.

Edward Ring co-founded the California Policy Center in 2010 and served as its president through 2016. He is a prolific writer on the topics of political reform and sustainable economic development.

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The Underrecognized, Undervalued, Underpaid, Unfunded Pension Liabilities

“It’s the economy, stupid.”
–  Campaign slogan, Clinton campaign, 1992

To paraphrase America’s 42nd president, when it comes to public sector pensions – their financial health and the policies that govern them – it’s the unfunded liability, stupid.

The misunderstood, obfuscated, unaccountable, underrecognized, undervalued, underpaid, unfunded pension liabilities.

According to CalPERS own data, California’s cities that are part of the CalPERS system will make “normal” contributions this year totaling $1.3 billion. Their “unfunded” contributions will be 41% greater, $1.8 billion. As for counties that participate in CalPERS, this year their “normal” contributions will total $586 million, and their “unfunded” contributions will be 36% greater at $607 million.

That’s nothing, however. Again using CalPERS own estimates, in just six years the unfunded contribution for cities will more than double, from $1.8 billion today, to $3.9 billion in 2024. The unfunded contribution for counties will nearly triple, from $607 million today to $1.5 billion in 2024 (download spreadsheet summary for all CalPERS cities and counties).

Put another way, by 2024, “normal contribution” payments by cities and counties to CalPERS are estimated to total $2.8 billion, and the “unfunded contribution” payments are estimated to total almost exactly twice as much, $5.5 billion.

So what?

For starters, every pension reform that has ever made it through the state legislature, including the Public Employee Pension Reform Act of 2013 (PEPRA), does NOT require public employees to share in the cost to pay the unfunded liability. The implications are profound. As public agency press releases crow over the phasing in of a “50% employee share” of the costs of pensions, not mentioned is the fact that this 50% only applies to 1/3 of what’s being paid. Public employees are only required to share, via payroll withholding, in the “normal cost” of the pension.

Now if the “normal cost” were ever estimated at anywhere near the actual cost to fund a pension, this wouldn’t matter. But CalPERS, according to their own most recent financial report, is only 68% funded. That is, they have investments totaling $326 billion, and liabilities totaling $477 billion. This gap, $151 billion, is how much more CalPERS needs to have invested in order for their pension system to be fully funded.

A pension system’s “liability” refers to the present value of every future pension payment that every current participant – active or retired – has earned so far. In a 100% funded system, if every active employee retired tomorrow and no more payments ever went into the system, if the invested assets were equal to that liability, those assets plus the estimated future earnings on those invested assets would be enough to pay 100% of the estimated pension payments in the future, until every individual beneficiary died.

A pension system’s “normal payment” refers to the amount of money that has to be paid into a fully funded system each year to fund the present value of additional pension benefits earned by active employees in that year. When the normal payment isn’t enough, the unfunded liability grows.

And wow, has it grown.

CalPERS is $151 billion in the hole. All of California’s state and local pension systems combined, CalPERS, CalSTRS, and the many city and county independent systems, are estimated to be $326 billion in the hole. And that’s extrapolated from estimates recognized by the pension funds themselves. Scenarios that employ more conservative earnings assumptions calculate total unfunded liabilities that are easily double that amount.

With respect to CalPERS, how did this unfunded liability get so big?

An earlier CPC analysis released earlier this year attempts to answer this. Theories include the following: (1) Letting the agencies decide which type of asset smoothing they’d like to employ, (2) permitting the agencies to make minimal payments on the unfunded liability so the liability would actually increase despite the payments, (3) making overly optimistic actuarial assumptions, (4) not taking action sooner so the unfunded payment wouldn’t end up being more than twice as much as the normal payment.

One final alarming point.

CalPERS recently announced that for any future increases to the unfunded liability, the unfunded payment will have to be calculated based on a 20 year, straight-line amortization. This is a positive development, since the more aggressively participants pay down the unfunded liability, the less likely it is that these pension systems will experience a financial collapse if there is a sustained downturn in investment performance. But it begs the question – why, if only increases to the unfunded liability have to be paid down more aggressively, is the unfunded payment nonetheless predicted to double within the next six years?

CalPERS information officer Tara Gallegos, when presented with this question, offered the following answers:

(1) The discount rate (equal to the projected rate-of-return on invested assets) is being lowered from 7.5% to 7.0% per year. But this lowering is being phased in over five years, so it will not impact the 2018 unfunded contribution. Whenever the return-on-investment assumption is lowered, the amount of the unfunded liability goes up. By 2024, the full impact of the lowered discount rate will have been applied, significantly increasing the required unfunded contribution.

(2) Investment returns were lower than the projected rate of return for the years ending 6/30/2015 (2.4%) and 6/30/2016 (0.6%). Lower than projected actual returns also increases the unfunded liability, and hence the amount of the unfunded payment, but this too is being phased-in over five years. Therefore it will not impact the unfunded payment in 2018, but will be fully impacting the unfunded payment by 2024.

(3) The unfunded payment automatically increases by 3% per year to reflect the payroll growth assumption of 3% per year. This alone accounts, over six years, for 20% of the increase to the unfunded payment. The reason for this is because most current unfunded payments are calculated by cities and counties using the so-called “percent of payroll” method, where payments are structured to increase each year. CalPERS is going to require new unfunded payments to not only be on a 20 year payback schedule, but to use a “level payment” structure which prevents negative amortization in the early years of the term. Unfortunately, up to now, cities and counties were permitted to backload their payments on the unfunded liability, and hence each year have built in increases to their unfunded payments.

The real reason the unfunded liability has gotten so big is because nobody wanted to make conservative estimates. Everybody wanted the normal payments to be as small as possible. The public sector unions wanted to minimize how much their members would have to contribute via withholding. CalPERS and the politicians – both heavily influenced by the public sector unions – wanted to sell generous new pension enhancements to voters, and to do that they needed to make the costs appear minimal.

As a result, taxpayers are now paying 100% of an “unfunded contribution” that is already a bigger payment than the normal contribution, and within a few years is destined, best case, to be twice as much as the normal contribution.

Camouflaged by its conceptual intricacy, the cleverly obfuscated, deliberately underrecognized, creatively undervalued, chronically underpaid, belatedly rising unfunded pension liabilities payments are poised to gobble up every extra dime of California’s tax revenue. And that’s not all…

Sitting on the blistering thin skin of a debt bubble, a housing bubble, and a stock market bubble, amid rising global economic uncertainty, just one bursting jiggle will cause pension fund assets to plummet as unfunded liabilities soar.

And when that happens, cities and counties have to pay these new unfunded balances down on honest, 20 year straight-line terms. They’ll be selling the parks and libraries, starving the seniors, releasing the criminals, firing cops and firefighters, and enacting emergency, confiscatory new taxes.

Whatever it takes to feed additional billions into the maw of the pension systems.

Budget surplus? Dream on.

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Edward Ring co-founded the California Policy Center in 2010 and served as its president through 2016. He is a prolific writer on the topics of political reform and sustainable economic development.

RELATED ARTICLES

How to Restore Financial Sustainability to Public Pensions, February 14, 2018

How to Assess Impact of a Market Correction on Pension Payments, February 7, 2018

California Government Pension Contributions Required to Double by 2024 – Best Case, January 31, 2018

Did CalPERS Use Accounting “Gimmicks” to Enable Financially Unsustainable Pensions?, January 24, 2018

How Much More Will Cities and Counties Pay CalPERS?, January 10, 2018

If You Think the Bull Market Rescued Pensions, Think Again, December 7, 2017

Did CalPERS Fail to Disclose Costs of Historic Bump in Pension Benefits?, October 26, 2017

Coping With the Pension Albatross, October 13, 2017

How Fraudulently Low “Normal Contributions” Wreak Havoc on Civic Finances, September 29, 2017

Pension Reform – The San Jose Model, September 6, 2017

Pension Reform – The San Diego Model, August 23, 2017

How to Restore Financial Sustainability to Public Pensions

Last month the League of California Cities released a “Retirement System Sustainability Study and Findings.” The findings were not surprising.

“Key Findings” were (1) City pension costs will dramatically increase to unsustainable levels, (2) Rising pension costs will require cities to nearly double the percentage of their general fund dollars they pay to CalPERS, and (3) Cities have few options to address growing pension liabilities.

These findings corroborate the California Policy Center’s concurrent recent updates on the pension situation in California. In the January 31st update “California Government Pension Contributions Required to Double by 2024 – Best Case,” and the January 10th update “How Much More Will Cities and Counties Pay CalPERS?,” using CalPERS own “Public Agency Actuarial Valuation Reports,” it is shown that over the next six years, participating cities will need to increase their payments to CalPERS by 87%, from $3.1 billion in the 2017-18 fiscal year to $5.8 billion by the 2024-25 fiscal year.

This 87% rise in pension payments, officially announced by CalPERS, is definitely a best case. The report from the League of California Cities offers the following footnote on page 1 that underscores this fact: “Bartel Associates used the existing CalPERS’ discount rate and projections for local revenue growth. To the extent CalPERS market return performance and local revenue growth do not achieve those estimates, impacts to local agencies will increase. Additionally, the data does not take into account action pending before the CalPERS Board of Administration to prospectively reduce the employer amortization schedule from its current 30 year term to a 20 year term. Should the Board adopt staff’s recommendation, employer contributions are likely to increase.”

The report from the League of California Cities includes a section entitled “What Cities Can Do Today.” This section merits a read between the lines:

ANALYSIS OF RECOMMENDATIONS TO CITIES CONFRONTING UNSUSTAINABLE PENSIONS

1 – “Develop and implement a plan to pay down the city’s Unfunded Actuarial Liability (UAL): Possible methods include shorter amortization periods and pre-payment of cities UAL. This option may only work for cities in a better financial condition.”

1 (reading between the lines) – PAY CALPERS MORE. Reduce the unfunded liability by making your annual catch-up payment even more than CalPERS is instructing you to pay in their “Public Agency Actuarial Valuation Reports.” Doing this will save money over several years. But only if you can afford it.

2 – “Consider local ballot measures to enhance revenues: Some cities have been successful in passing a measure to increase revenues. Others have been unsuccessful. Given that these are voter approved measures, success varies depending on location.”

2 (reading between the lines) – RAISE TAXES. Do what you’ve been doing incessantly ever since pension benefits were enhanced right before the financial crisis of 2000 wiped out the pension fund surplus. Raise taxes. Say it’s “for the children” and to “protect seniors,” and based on the last several years of data, there is an 80% chance voters will approve the new tax.

3 – “Create a Pension Rate Stabilization Program (PRSP): Establishing and funding a local Section 115 Trust Fund can help offset unanticipated spikes in employer contributions. Initial funds still must be identified. Again, this is an option that may work for cities that are in a better financial condition.”

3 (reading between the lines) – PAY CALPERS MORE. Make payments into a separate investment fund, over and above your annual pension payments, earmarked for CalPERS. Then draw on those funds when the annual pension payments increase. But only if you can afford it.

4 – “Change service delivery methods and levels of certain public services: Many cities have already consolidated and cut local services during the Great Recession and have not been able to restore those service levels. Often, revenue growth from the improved economy has been absorbed by pension costs. The next round of service cuts will be even harder.”

4 (reading between the lines) – CUT SERVICES.

5. “Use procedures and transparent bargaining to increase employee pension contributions: Many local agencies and their employee organizations have already entered into such agreements.”

5 (reading between the lines) – MAKE BENEFICIARIES PAY MORE. Good idea. The League of California Cities might expand on the feasibility of this recommendation and provide examples of where it actually happened (cases where employees agreed to pay more towards their pension benefits but received an equivalent pay increase do not count).

6 – “Issue a pension obligation bond (POB): However, financial experts including the Government Finance Officers Association (GFOA) strongly discourage local agencies from issuing POBs. Moreover, this approach only delays and compounds the inevitable financial impacts.”

6 (reading between the lines) – GO INTO DEBT TO PAY OFF DEBT. Pension obligation bonds are at best a dangerous gamble, at worst a deceptive scam. The recommendation itself (above) dismisses itself in the final sentence, where it states “this approach only delays and compounds the inevitable financial impacts.”

WHAT CAN LOCAL ELECTED OFFICIALS DO ABOUT UNSUSTAINABLE PENSIONS?

1 – Learn what really happened and communicate it to everyone – employees, elected officials, journalists, citizens. CalPERS, an independent entity largely controlled by public employee unions, joined with powerful union lobbyists to push through pension benefit enhancements beginning in 1999. Despite a sobering and ongoing stock market correction that began only a year later in 2000, over the next several years these two special interests successfully lobbied to roll these financially unsustainable benefit enhancements through nearly every state and local agency in California.

Then, for years, whether intentionally or via a culture that encouraged wishful thinking, CalPERS obfuscated the deepening financial challenges from local officials and the public, deferring the day of reckoning. For more on this, read “Did CalPERS Use Accounting “Gimmicks” to Enable Financially Unsustainable Pensions?”

2 – Support legislation that will make it easier to take steps to reduce financially unsustainable pension benefits. For example, state senator John Moorlach – the only actual CPA currently serving in California’s state legislature – has just introduced Senate Bill 1031. According to Moorlach’s recent press release, this bill “would protect the solvency of public-employee pensions by making sure each yearly COLA – cost-of-living-adjustment – isn’t so large it tips the underlying fund into insolvency. If a pension system is funded at less than 80 percent, then the COLA would be suspended until the funding status recovers.” Great idea.

3 – Fight for either legislation or a citizen initiative to implement the “Pension Sustainability Principles” that the California League of Cities’ Board of Directors adopted in June 2017. In particular, “converting all currently deemed ‘Classic’ employees to the same provisions (benefits and employee contributions) currently in place for ‘PEPRA’ employees for all future years of service.”

4 – Understand that public employee unions are likely to fight any substantive revisions to their pension benefits, and be prepared to incur their wrath. When they fund candidates to challenge you and destroy you in the next election, own the pension issue. Make it the centerpiece of your campaign and challenge your union-funded opponent on the basis of financial reality.

5 – Thoroughly familiarize yourself with the dynamics of pension finance and the underlying concepts. A good place to start is the CPC primer “How to Assess Impact of a Market Correction on Pension Payments.” Quoting from that article – “Any policymaker who is required to negotiate over pension benefits, explain pension benefits, consider changes to pensions, or understand the impact of pensions on current and future budgets, or for that matter, contemplate any sort of increase to local taxes and fees, needs to understand the basic financial concepts that govern pensions. They should understand the difference between the total pension liability and the unfunded pension liability. They should understand the difference between the normal payment and the unfunded payment. They should understand the difference between unfunded payment schedules that use the “percent of payroll” method vs. the “level payment” method. They should know what “smoothing” is. They should thoroughly understand these concepts and related concepts.”

6 – Local elected officials might consider ways to exit CalPERS. The option of leaving CalPERS should not be dismissed merely because the terms of departure require a large payment. While the buyout terms CalPERS imposes on agencies that want to leave the system are onerous, the funds a city must muster for the buyout are still retained as funds reserved to service their pension liability. This is one situation where financing scenarios might make sense, because once an agency leaves CalPERS, they are no longer subject to many of the restrictions CalPERS places on the ability of agencies to modify pension benefits. The savings realized by having the latitude to make more substantive changes to benefit formulas could mitigate the financing risk.

7 – Finally, remind the members of public employee unions that merely opposing their leadership on pension policies does not automatically make you their enemy. Defined benefit pensions are superior to individual 401K plans, because they do not carry the market risk nor the mortality risk that is inherent in anyone’s individual 401K. But defined benefit plans must be fair to taxpayers, they must be financially sustainable, and the participants must pay their fair share. Appeal not only to their desire to see their pension funds stabilized so they don’t face draconian cuts in the future instead of measured cuts today, but also to the reasons they entered public service, their altruism, their civic pride, their patriotism, their desire to make a contribution to society.

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How to Assess Impact of a Market Correction on Pension Payments

On January 28, 2018, the Dow Jones stock index closed at a record high of 28,610. Nine days later, on February 6, the Dow index hit an intraday low of 24,198, a drop of over 15 percent. Since then the Dow index has recovered somewhat, along with other stock indexes and the underlying stocks around the world.

Nobody knows whether this sudden plunge is the beginning of a major downward correction, or even the beginning of a bear market, but it is a sobering reminder that permanently high returns on investment are not guaranteed. And it is a good opportunity to offer tools that local elected officials can use to assess the impact of a market correction on their agency’s required pension payments.

The tool presented here is a spreadsheet dubbed “CLEO Pension Calculator” (download here) that allows a layperson to evaluate various scenarios of pension finance. Before summarizing these tools, here’s how this spreadsheet predicts the impact of a 15% drop in the value of pension fund assets. This example shows the impact on all of California’s pension systems.

A recent CPC analysis “California Government Pension Contributions Required to Double by 2024 – Best Case,” using CalPERS official projections along with U.S. Census Bureau data, estimated California’s total pension assets for all of California’s state and local government agencies at $761 billion. Liabilities were estimated at $1.087 billion, meaning the total “unfunded” liability (assets minus liabilities) was estimated at $326 billion. Using that data as a starting point:

–  If there is a 15% drop in pension fund assets, the unfunded liability rises from $326 billion to $440 billion.

–  If there is a 15% drop in pension fund assets, the unfunded contribution, or “catch up” payment, rises from $30.8 billion to $41.5 billion.

–  To summarize, for every sustained 10% drop in the value of pension fund assets, California’s state and local government pension funds will require another $7.0 billion per year. In reality, however, it could be worse, because a serious market correction could trigger another reassessment of the projected earnings. For example:

–  If there is a 15% drop in pension fund assets, and the new projected earnings percentage is lowered from 7.0% to 6.0%, the normal contribution [1]will increase by $2.6 billion per year, and the unfunded contribution will increase by $19.9 billion. Total annual pension contributions will increase from the currently estimated $31.0 billion to $68.5 billion. [2]

These are mind-boggling numbers, but they are well-founded. The calculations used to arrive at these figures use formulas provided by Moody’s Investor Services in their current guidelines for municipal pension analysts, as reflected in their 2013 “Adjustments to US State and Local Government Reported Pension Data.”

This spreadsheet can be used by anyone, for any city, county, or agency.

INSTRUCTIONS TO USE THE SPREADSHEET

(1) To recalculate the unfunded pension debt, and to recalculate the unfunded pension payment:

On the tab “Unfunded Debt and Payment,” just enter the balances for your agency for your pension fund’s assets, liabilities, and assumed rate of return. Then change the rate of return from the official number to something lower, and see what happens. Change the value of the assets to something lower, and see what happens.

(2)  To recalculate the normal pension payment:

This shortcut method, approved by Moody’s but discontinued in their final guidelines partly due to the difficulties in getting the data, requires the user to know the amount of their current normal contribution. CalPERS, to their credit, provides this information for each of their participating agencies in their “Public Agency Actuarial Valuation Reports.” If your agency is not part of CalPERS, you may be able to find this number in your pension system’s Consolidated Annual Financial Report, or you may have to contact the pension system and request the information. The fact that it is not easy for many participating agencies to know how their pension contribution breaks out between the normal contribution and the unfunded contribution is a scandal. If you know your normal contribution, just enter it on the “Normal Payment” tab on the spreadsheet, along with a revised rate-of-return projection, and see what happens.

(3) To perform sensitivity analysis to evaluate how various assumptions affect pension contributions:

This tab provides, using a hypothetical individual beneficiary as the example, an excellent way to see just how sensitive contribution rates are to various changes to benefits or other assumptions. To do this, go to the “Sensitivity Analysis” tab and enter any values you wish in the yellow highlighted cells. They include age of retirement, percent COLA growth per year during employment, the pension multiplier, the percent pension COLA growth during retirement, life expectancy, age when work commenced, percent of salary increase per year of employment, the percent of salary each year to the pension fund, the annual percentage return of the fund, and the final salary. Then the fun starts: The user must vary these inputs in order that the model displays a near-zero (within $10-$15K) value in the green highlighted cell “fund ending balance.” While this model is a simplification (for example it doesn’t account for the gap which sometimes occurs between a participant leaving the workforce and becoming eligible for retirement benefits) this model will help any user develop insights into what factors have the most impact on pension solvency.

(4) To determine the value of an individual pension:

A common and useful way to compare pension benefits to private sector 401K plans is to estimate what a pension benefit is worth at the time of retirement. Using this method is a valid attempt to provide an apples-to-apples comparison, by showing how much someone would have to have saved in a 401K plan to have an income stream in retirement equivalent to a pension. To do this, enter on the “Value of Individual Pension” tab a set of assumptions – age of retirement, years worked, pension “multiplier,” final year’s pension eligible compensation, pension COLA during retirement, and life-expectancy. There are also cells to enter various rate-of-return assumptions (discount rates). The green highlighted cells then display the present value of this pension benefit at various rates-of-return.

Any policymaker who is required to negotiate over pension benefits, explain pension benefits, consider changes to pensions, or understand the impact of pensions on current and future budgets, or for that matter, contemplate any sort of increase to local taxes and fees, needs to understand the basic financial concepts that govern pensions. They should understand the difference between the total pension liability and the unfunded pension liability. They should understand the difference between the normal payment and the unfunded payment. They should understand the difference between unfunded payment schedules that use the “percent of payroll” method vs. the “level payment” method. They should know what “smoothing” is. They should thoroughly understand these concepts and related concepts.

This spreadsheet is offered to reinforce understanding of these concepts, and to further better understand the impact of lower rates of return (and changes to other assumptions) on required contributions to the pension system.

Download CLEO Pension Calculator

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FOOTNOTES 

[1]  Unless the projected annual earnings percentage also drops from the 7.0% (which CalPERS is phasing in over the next few years, down from the current 7.5%), only the so-called “unfunded contribution” increases. This is because the “normal contribution,” is only required to fund the future pension benefits earned for work just performed in the current year. By definition, the normal contribution cannot change merely because the unfunded liability increases.

[2]  The attentive reader will note the discrepancy between the currently estimated total employer pension contributions noted in the table “Employer Contribution 2017-18” of $31.0 billion in the report “California Government Pension Contributions Required to Double by 2024 – Best Case,” and the default values for total pension contributions in the spreadsheet of $15.2 billion (normal) and $30.8 billion (unfunded), totaling $46.0 billion. This is because the spreadsheet calculates the unfunded contribution based on 100% of participating pension systems adopting the 20 year straight-line amortization, whereas the numbers in the report reflect the fact that many if not most pension systems have not yet required their participants to amortize their unfunded liability in 20 years. This is validated by the report’s data for 2024-25, where the unfunded contribution rises dramatically, reflecting the determination of most pension systems to require their participants to begin adopting the more aggressive 20 year payback schedules. It should also be noted that the spreadsheet’s default normal contribution amount of $14.0 billion only reflects the employer’s share of the normal contribution, and that typically (if not invariably), employee’s are never required to share via withholding in the burden of the unfunded contribution.

This article is cross-posted on the CPC project website “California Local Elected Officials” (CLEO), where viewers can find policy briefs, sample reforms, and news alerts on a variety of local public policy issues.

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California Government Pension Contributions Required to Double by 2024 – Best Case

The employer contribution to California’s state and local government pension systems will double, from $31 billion in 2018 to $59 billion by 2024. This estimate is based on aggregating official projections of cost increases issued by CalPERS to their participating agencies, and extrapolating those projections show the overall impact on all of California’s 87 government pension systems.

As reported in the CPC analysis “How Much More Will Cities and Counties Pay CalPERS?,” each of their participating agencies can now view detailed information on the financial status for each of their local pension plans by accessing the “Public Agency Actuarial Valuation Reports” issued by CalPERS actuaries.

The table below shows, in column one, the sum total of the projections prepared by CalPERS for each of their participating local agencies. As can be seen, local government employers in the CalPERS system are required to contribute $5.3 billion this year. By 2024, that required employer contribution will nearly double, to $10.1 billion.

The middle column in the table extrapolates these projections to the entire CalPERS system, incorporating the state agencies they serve. This is a reasonable extrapolation, since – using data from CalPERS 2016-17 Annual Financial Report – the entire CalPERS system is actually slightly less funded, at 68%, than their local agency plans, at 69%. As can be seen, the entire CalPERS system is estimated to require employer contributions to rise from $13.3 billion this year to $25.3 billion in 2024.

Column three in the table extrapolates this data to incorporate all of California’s state and local government pension systems. Using Census Bureau data, these systems are estimated to have $761 billion in assets. Based on that total, and assuming similar financial profiles for all California’s pension systems – i.e., about 70% funded in aggregate – California’s state and local government employers will pay $31 billion into the 87 various pension systems this year, and by 2024 this payment will rise to $59.1 billion.

Estimated Increase to Employer Pension Contribution
2017-18 compared to 2014-25 ($=B)

When assessing the impact of a nearly $30 billion hike in pension contributions between now and 2024, it’s important to note that these projected payments do not include contributions collected from state and local government employees via payroll withholding. Last year, for example, CalPERS collected $12.3 billion from employers – i.e., taxpayers – and supplemented that with $4.2 billion in employee contributions via payroll withholding (ref. CalPERS CAFR, page 31). Why are the employees only paying 25% of the cost for their benefit? Didn’t the PEPRA reform of 2012 put them on track to pay 50% of the cost of their pensions?

To properly answer this, it is necessary to view the projected changes to the employer “normal contribution,” vs. their “unfunded contribution.” The normal contribution is how much money must go into a pension system in any given year. It represents the amount that has to be invested in the present year to eventually fund the additional retirement benefits earned by employees in that same year. According to PEPRA, this so-called normal contribution is the only portion of an employer’s pension fund payment that employees are required to help pay for. And since the normal contribution has never been enough, pension systems have become underfunded – and the money necessary to catch up, the unfunded contribution, falls 100% on the backs of the taxpayers.

If the unfunded contribution was a trivial amount, because pension fund actuaries had made prudent forecasts, this would be a non-issue. But as summarized last week in the report “Did CalPERS Use Accounting “Gimmicks” to Enable Financially Unsustainable Pensions?,” forecasts were not prudent. They were wildly optimistic. This is why, using official projections, CalPERS requires an unfunded contribution this year that is already 21% greater than the normal contribution, and by 2024, CalPERS will required an unfunded contribution that is 53% greater than the normal contribution.

These are best-case projections, since CalPERS and CalSTRS, along with most of California’s major government pension systems are only lowering their long-term projected rate of return assumptions from 7.5% to 7.0%. All of this, this extra $30 billion per year that California’s taxpayers are going to have to cough up by 2024 to feed the pension systems, is assuming that strong investment returns continue indefinitely. If there is a major correction in the stock market, or in real estate, or in bonds, or in all three, then all bets are off.

After a run-up in the value of invested assets that has now lasted for nearly ten years, CalPERS is only 68% funded, and CalSTRS is only 64% funded. These pension systems are already requiring taxpayers to more than double their payments to reduce an unfunded liability that they’ve already racked up, despite realizing unprecedented gains in an overheated market that is ripe for a correction. When that happens, the payments they’ll require to stay afloat could double again.

If you are wondering what is truly driving the state and local governments’ insatiable desire for more tax revenue, look no further.

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Did CalPERS Use Accounting “Gimmicks” to Enable Financially Unsustainable Pensions?

Gimmick – a concealed, usually devious aspect or feature of something, as a plan or deal.
– Dictionary.com

In the past week, from Millbrae’s city hall to the inner sanctum of the CalPERS leviathan in Sacramento, defenders of pensions have been active. In particular, they have criticized the recent analysis, published by the California Policy Center, “How Much More Will Cities and Counties Pay CalPERS?” It would advance the ongoing debate over pensions to summarize the points of the CPC analysis, how CalPERS and their allies attacked those points, and how those attacks might be challenged.

On January 19th, in a report published online by Chief Investment Officer magazine entitled “CalPERS: Ring’s Flippant Claim of ‘Tricky Accounting Gimmicks’ Is False,” author Christine Giordano interviewed CalPERS spokesperson Amy Morgan. Tellingly, they did not discuss the substance of the CPC analysis, which specified, using CalPERS’ own data, how much more cities and counties are going to have to pay CalPERS. They focused instead on specific criticisms of CalPERS that followed those payment calculations.

As noted by the title of the report, CalPERS spokesperson Amy Morgan seemed to suggest the characterization of their accounting practices as employing “gimmicks” is not backed up by evidence. Morgan is invited to review the following evidence, after which she may join our readers in deciding whether or not “gimmicks” were employed.

GIMMICK #1  –  THE CORRUPTION OF “ASSET SMOOTHING”

Asset smoothing is a practice whereby pension funds do not overestimate their assets after years of good returns, nor underestimate their assets after years of poor returns. It is a good way to avoid overreacting to market volatility. But in 2001, when the Dow Jones stock index had already been correcting for over a year and the Nasdaq was collapsing, CalPERS abdicated their responsibility to set the rules on smoothing.

When participating agencies in the CalPERS system were contemplating whether or not to follow the lead of the California Highway Patrol (SB 400, 1999) and retroactively increase pension benefits, CalPERS sent projections to these agencies in which a CalPERS actuary presented to elected officials three distinct values for the assets they had invested with CalPERS. Remarkably, that document gave these agency officials the liberty to choose which one they’d like to use – the higher the value they chose for their existing assets, the lower the cost from CalPERS to pay for the benefit enhancements they were contemplating. The usual disclaimers were present, but the mere fact that city officials were given three scenarios is suspect. Obviously these officials would be under pressure to pick the scenario that provided the biggest benefit enhancement for the lowest cost. Read “Did CalPERS Fail to Disclose Costs of Historic Bump in Pension Benefits?” for more details including several source documents.

One of the most revealing documents is exemplified by the “Contract Amendment Cost Analysis,” sent to Pacific Grove by CalPERS in July, 2001. Here is an excerpt from that document, showing the choices CalPERS offered Pacific Grove:

The available rate choices are offered under three different Alternatives:
Alternative 1 – No increase in Actuarial Value of Assets
Alternative 2 – Actuarial Value of Assets increased by twice the increase in the Present Value of Benefits due to the amendment, limited to 100% of Market Value of Assets
Alternative 3 – Actuarial Value of Assets increased by twice the increase in the Present Value of Benefits due to the amendment, limited to 110% of Market Value of Assets

To reiterate: CalPERS provided abundant disclaimers. They suggested that given recent “market volatility,” city officials “are strongly encouraged to have in-depth discussions with your CalPERS actuary about the financial consequences of any amendment.”

Now let’s get real: Further on in this same letter, CalPERS provides a breakdown of how much pension benefit enhancements will cost in terms of annual contributions as a percent of payroll under each of these three scenarios:

Alternative 1 – The actuarial value of the assets is not tampered with, the normal cost goes from 4.6% to 25.0%.
Alternative 2 – The actuarial value of the assets is lifted up to market value, the normal cost goes from 4.6% to 19.9%.
Alternative 3 – The actuarial value of assets goes up to 110% of the market value, the normal cost – to implement a massive, retroactive enhancement to pension benefits – goes from 4.6% to 6.2%.

What option would you choose, if you were a city manager whose own pension would be enhanced, or a city council member who has to answer to powerful unions whose members want more generous pension formulas?

The reason CalPERS was able to cram this through, in July 2001 as the market was cratering, was based on their decision to present various asset “smoothing” options to members. Why? Because the smoothing options they’d been using were understating the value of their assets because stock values had exploded in the final years of the 1990s. One can only speculate as to why they did this as late as July 2001 when it was obvious the internet stock bubble had popped. It’s possible CalPERS officials knew several agencies had already lobbied for pension benefit enhancements and the officials were under pressure to leave no agency behind. But to offer local bureaucrats and elected officials a choice of various asset smoothing methods was passing the buck.

Overnight, the CalPERS practice of asset smoothing went from being a prudent accounting guideline to a clever rationalization for disastrous policy decisions. If that’s not a gimmick, I don’t know what is.

GIMMICK #2 – CREATIVE AMORTIZATION OF UNFUNDED LIABILITY

When you talk about “tricky accounting gimmicks,” it’s hard to find one worse than the methods the participating agencies chose to amortize their unfunded liability. To be fair, final responsibility for these decisions usually rests with the cities and counties. But CalPERS should have tried to crack down on these practices a long time ago, and indeed, has recently become more aggressive in doing just that. The basic choice facing agencies with huge unfunded liabilities is whether they want to pay them off aggressively, or come up with creative accounting techniques that push the tough repayments into the future. For example, instead of using a “level payment” repayment calculation, many of them use a “percent of payroll” scheme which allows for graduated payments.

In practice, this means calculating a stream of payments that will pay off the liability in 30 years, but varying the payments so that as projected payroll increases, the payment increases. This allows agencies to make low payments in the early years of the amortization term, which frequently means the unfunded liability isn’t even being reduced in the early years of the amortization term. Then when the payments become burdensome, they refinance the new, larger unfunded liability, to get that unfunded payment down again, in a new tranche, again using the same “level percent of payroll method.”

Anyone who lost their home because a “negative amortization” loan conned them into buying something they couldn’t afford would likely call that type of loan a “gimmick.” Similarly, negative amortization payment schedules on unfunded pension liabilities are also gimmicks. To their credit, CalPERS is now recommending 20-year straight line amortization. Which begs the question, why didn’t they do this all along?

GIMMICK #3 – OVERESTIMATING LONG-TERM RATE-OF-RETURN ASSUMPTIONS

CalPERS spokesperson Morgan correctly claims that CalPERS returns have averaged an 8.4% return over the past 30 years. But Morgan conveniently selects the 30 year timeframe to capture all of the pre-1999 run-up in stocks that began in the Reagan years as interest rates were reduced from inflation-fighting highs of 16% (30 year T-bill in the early 1980s) and American consumers began piling on debt. The 20-year return for CalPERS investments through June 30, 2017 is 6.58%. And these last 20 years of returns are far more relevant, because not quite 20 years ago is when CalPERS began to offer pension benefit enhancements that were sold as affordable when they clearly are not.

But if CalPERS is exceeding its projected rates of return over the past 30 years, why is it only 68% funded (ref. CalPERS 2016-17 CAFR, page 4, “Funding”)? At the end of a prolonged bull market, pension systems should be overfunded. Being 68% funded would not be terribly alarming if we were at the end of a prolonged bear market, but we’re in the opposite place. How can CalPERS possibly claim their actuaries are doing a competent job, if the system is this underfunded at this point in the market cycle? For more on this, read “If You Think the Bull Market Rescued Pensions, Think Again.”

It is important to emphasize that even if CalPERS can get a 7.0% return on investment – and there is some chance that they can – why did the agency wait until it was 68% funded to announce the drop in its projected returns from 7.5% to 7.0%? The United States economy is in the terminal phases of a more than 60 year long-term credit cycle, and one might argue there is a stronger case to be made that even 7.0% is highly optimistic. But we like optimism, so never mind that for now. Why wait until 2018 to phase in that half-point drop? The actuaries at CalPERS are well aware how sensitive their payment schedules are to even half-point drops in long-term rate-of-return assumptions. Overstating returns understates true cost. Is this an accounting gimmick? Only if you can prove intent. But read on.

GIMMICK #4 – QUIETLY ALLOWING THE UNFUNDED PAYMENT TO DWARF THE “NORMAL” PAYMENT

Every year, each active worker who gets CalPERS benefits vests another year of service. This means that in the future, during their retirement years, they will have an incrementally greater pension benefit in recognition of one more year of work. To pay for that incrementally greater pension benefit in the future, additional money must be invested today. That amount of money is called the “normal” contribution. But when the “normal” contribution isn’t enough, and it hasn’t been for years, the so-called unfunded liability grows. This unfunded liability represents the amount by which invested pension assets need to increase in order to earn enough to eventually pay for all the future pensions that have been promised.

This “unfunded liability” may seem theoretical when a pension system has hundreds of billions in assets. But it has to get paid down, because when there aren’t enough assets in the pension system earning interest, higher contributions are inevitably required from the participating agencies. If the unfunded liability isn’t reduced via catch-up payments, it will grow even if the normal contributions are adequate to cover newly earned benefits.

This reality is corroborated using CalPERS’ own data, which announces that payments required, as a percent of payroll, are set to increase by 50% (in some cases much more) over the next six years in nearly every agency it serves. And where are these projected increases most pronounced? In the unfunded contribution – that payment to reduce the unfunded liability.

And why does the unfunded liability grow in the first place? Because the normal contribution is too low. Why is the normal contribution too low? Could it be because public employees are only required to assist (via payroll withholding) to pay the normal contribution? Could that be the reason that lifespans were underestimated and returns were overestimated? The actuaries obviously got something wrong, because CalPERS is only around 68% funded. You can download the spreadsheet that shows the impact of this on California’s cities and counties here –  CalPERS-Actuarial-Report-Data-Cities-and-Counties.xlsx.

In the original CPC report, along with the term “gimmick,” the term “outrageous” was used. If you don’t think sparing the beneficiaries of these pensions any responsibility to share in the costs to pay down the unfunded liability isn’t outrageous, you aren’t paying attention. For example, by 2024, using CalPERS own data, the City of Millbrae will be paying CalPERS a normal contribution of $1.0 million, and an unfunded, or “catch-up” contribution of $5.8 million – nearly six times as much! Is Millbrae just an isolated example? Not really.

Again, using CalPERS’ own data, in 2017-18, their 426 participating cities will contribute $3.1 billion to CalPERS, an amount equal to 32% of their cumulative payroll. In 2024-25, just six years from now, they are estimated to contribute 5.8 billion, 48% of payroll. And the normal vs unfunded contributions? This year in the cities in the CalPERS system, 13% of payroll constitutes the normal contribution and 19% of payroll constitutes the unfunded contribution – for which current employees and retirees have no responsibility to help pay down. In 2024-25? The normal contribution is estimated to increase to 16% of payroll, and the unfunded contribution, rising to $4.0 billion, is estimated to increase to 33% of payroll.

Put another way, today the unfunded “catch-up” pension contribution for California’s cities, cumulatively, is 140% of the normal contribution. By 2024-25, that “catch-up” contribution is going to be 210% of the normal contribution, more than twice as much! And participating individual employees and retirees have zero obligation to help pay it down, even though that payment is now twice as much as the normal payment.

But it’s not the fault of the individual beneficiaries. The responsibility lies with CalPERS and the politicians they reassured for all these years, using gimmicks.

Let’s review these practices: (1) Letting the agencies decide which type of asset smoothing they’d like to employ, (2) permitting the agencies to make minimal payments on the unfunded liability so the liability would actually increase despite the payments, (3) making overly optimistic actuarial assumptions, (4) not taking action sooner so the unfunded payment wouldn’t end up being more than twice as much as the normal payment.

“Gimmicks”? You decide.

THE CASE OF MILLBRAE

On January 22, the San Mateo Daily Journal published an article entitled “Millbrae officials question, criticize pension cost report.”

The paper’s Austin Walsh reports that Millbrae officials told him that using staffing projections to calculate Millbrae’s future pension burden won’t work because Millbrae has fewer employees than most municipalities. Here’s how Millbrae’s Finance Director DeAnna Hilbrants put it: To limit pension costs, Millbrae contracts for positions in police, fire and public works departments. Quote: “Most notably, Hillbrants pointed to Millbrae joining the Central County Fire Department with Burlingame and Hillsborough and contracting with the San Mateo County Sheriff’s Office for law enforcement.”

What Millbrae officials are saying is that because they contract out much if not most of their personnel costs, their pension contribution is a small percent of their total budget. What they neglect to acknowledge is the fact that the Central County Fire Department and the San Mateo Sheriff’s Office themselves have pension costs, which are passed on to Millbrae to the extent Millbrae uses their services. Millbrae may have made a financially beneficial decision to outsource its public safety requirements. But they did not escape the pension albatross.

CALPERS IS NOT UNIQUE

What has been described here does not just apply to CalPERS. It is the rule, not the exception, for every one of California’s pension systems to engage in the same gimmickry. The consequences for California’s cities, counties, agencies, and system of public education are just beginning to be felt.

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How Much More Will Cities and Counties Pay CalPERS?

When speaking about pension burdens on California’s cities and counties, a perennial question is how much are the costs going to increase? In recent years, California’s biggest pension system, CalPERS, has offered “Public Agency Actuarial Valuation Reports” that purport to answer that question. Notwithstanding the fact that CalPERS predictive credibility is questionable – i.e., they’ve gotten it wrong before – these reports are quite useful. Before delving into them, it is reasonable to assert that what is presented here, using CalPERS data, are best case scenarios.

In partnership with researchers at the Reason Foundation, the California Policy Center has compiled the data for every agency client of CalPERS, including 427 cities and 36 counties. In this summary, that data has been distilled to present two sets of numbers – payments to CalPERS for the 2017-2018 fiscal year, and officially estimated payments to CalPERS in the 2024-25 fiscal year. In calculating these results, the only assumption we made (apart from the assumptions made by CalPERS), was for estimated payroll costs in 2024. We used a 3% annual growth rate for payroll expenses, the rate most commonly used in official actuarial analyses on this topic.

So how much more will cities and counties have to pay CalPERS between now and 2024? How much more will pensions cost, six years from now?

On the table below, we provide information for the 20 cities that are going to be hit the hardest by pension cost increases. To view this same information for all cities and counties that participate in the CalPERS system, download the spreadsheet “CalPERS Actuarial Report Data – Cities and Counties.”

CalPERS Actuarial Report Data
The Twenty California Cities With the Highest Pension Burden ($=M)

If you are a local elected official, or if you are an activist, journalist, or anyone else with a keen interest in pensions, these tables merit close scrutiny. Because they not only show costs estimates today, and seven years from now, but they break these costs into two very distinct areas – the so-called “normal” costs, which are how much employers have to pay into the pension fund for current workers who are vesting one more year of future benefits, and the “catch-up” costs, which are what CalPERS charges employers whose pension plan is underfunded.

Take the first city listed, Millbrae. By 2024, we predict Millbrae will have the highest total pension payments of any city in California that belongs to the CalPERS system.

The table presents are two blocks of data – the set of columns on the left show current costs for pensions, and the set of columns on the right show the predicted cost for pensions. In all cases, the cost in millions is shown, along with the cost in terms of percent of total payroll.

Currently, as can be seen on the table, for every dollar it pays active employees in base wages, Millbrae must contribute 59 cents to CalPERS. This does not include payments to CalPERS that Millbrae collects from its employees via withholding. The same data show that, by 2024, for every dollar Millbrae pays active employees in base wages, they will have to contribute 89 cents to CalPERS. Put another way, while Millbrae may expect its payroll costs to increase by $1.4 million, from $6.3 million today to $7.7 million in six years, their payment to CalPERS will increase by $3.1 million, from $3.7 million today to $6.8 million in 2024.

But here’s the rub. Nearly all of this increase to Millbrae’s pension costs are the “catch-up” payments on the city’s unfunded liability. In just six years Millbrae’s payment on its unfunded liability will increase by 99%, from $2.9 million today to $5.8 million in 2024.

Why?

What are the implications?

It is difficult to overstate how outrageous this is. Here’s a list:

1 – Virtually every pension “reform” over the past decade or so has exempted active public employees from helping to pay down the unfunded liability via withholding. Instead, their increased withholding – in some cases supposedly rising to “fifty percent of pension costs” (the PEPRA reforms) – only apply to the normal contribution.

2 – In order to appease the unions who, quite understandably, lobby for the lowest possible employee contributions to pension funds, the “normal cost” is calculated based on financially optimistic projections. The less time an actuary predicts a retiree will live, and the more an actuary predicts investments will earn, the lower the normal contribution.

3 – In order to cajole local elected officials to agree to pension benefit enhancements, the same overly optimistic, misleading projections were provided, duping decision makers into thinking pension contributions would never become a significant burden on cities and counties, and by extension, taxpayers.

4 – Because cities and counties couldn’t afford to pay down the growing unfunded liabilities attached to their pension plans, tricky accounting gimmicks were employed, where minimal catch-up payments were made in the present in exchange for bigger catch-up payments in the future. The closest financial analogy to what they did would be the “negative amortization” mortgages that were popular prior to the housing crash of 2008.

5 – The consequence of this chicanery is that today, as can be seen, catch-up payments on the unfunded liability are typically two to three times greater than the normal contribution. And it’s getting worse. In 2024, Millbrae, for example, will have a catch-up contribution that is nearly six times as much as their normal contribution.

6 – When a normal contribution isn’t enough, and the plan becomes underfunded, the level of underfunding is compounded every year because there isn’t enough money in the fund earning interest. The longer catch-up payments are deferred, the worse the situation gets.

Yet the normal contribution has always been represented as all that should be required for pension plans to remain fully funded. Just how bad it has gotten can be clearly seen on the table.

Take a look at Pacific Grove, fourth on the list of CalPERS cities with the highest pension burden. Pacific Grove is already paying 40 cents to CalPERS for every dollar it pays to its active employees. But in six years, that amount will go up to 75 cents to CalPERS per dollar of salary to active employees. And take a look at where the increase comes from: Their catch-up payment goes from 1.7 million to $4.4 million in just six years.

Why?

Why isn’t Pacific Grove paying more, now, so that it can avoid more years of having too little money in its pension plan, earning interest to properly fund future pensions? The reason is simple: Telling Pacific Grove to go out and find another $2.7 million, right now, is politically unpalatable. In six years, most of the local elected officials in Pacific Grove will be gone. But where is Pacific Grove going to find this kind of money? Where are any of California’s cities and counties going to find this kind of money?

One final point: These pension plans are underfunded after a bull market in stocks has doubled since it’s last peak in June 2007, and has nearly quadrupled since it’s last low in March 2009. When stocks and real estate have been running up in value for eight years, pension plans should not be underfunded. But they are. CalPERS should be overfunded at a time like this, not underfunded. That bodes ill for the financial status of CalPERS if and when stocks and real estate undergo a downward correction.

CalPERS, and the public employee unions that dominate CalPERS, have done a disservice to taxpayers, public agencies, and ultimately, to the individual participants who are counting on them to know what they’re doing. They were too optimistic, and the consequences are just beginning to be felt.

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If You Think the Bull Market Rescued Pensions, Think Again

One year ago the Dow Jones stock index was 19,756. Today it closed at 24,211, an increase of 23%. Pretty good for one year! When the stock market does well, pension funds do well, since that’s where these funds place most of their portfolio investments. But CalPERS, the largest public employee pension system in the United States, is not doing well. Why not?

The table below shows how well CalPERS, the California Public Employees Retirement System, has performed with its investments over the past twenty years through their most recent fiscal year ended 6/30/2017.

As can be seen, CalPERS, like the stock market, and like all pension systems that rely primarily on the stock market to drive the performance of their investments, has had good years and bad years. Back in the late 1990’s, when the stock market was roaring, CalPERS put together a string of great years, including a whopping 20.1% return in 1997 and a 19.5% return in 1998. Then in 2001, after the internet bubble burst, CalPERS lost 7.2%, followed by a 6.1% loss in 2002.

A similar up/down story can be told during the stock market recovery in the mid-2000’s, where CalPERS logged a 16.6% return in 2004, 12.3% in 2005, 11.8% in 2006, and a spectacular 19.1% in 2007. Then when the housing bubble burst, CalPERS lost 5.1% in 2008, followed by a 24.0% loss in 2009. Now the stock market has turned in eight years of positive returns. What could go wrong?

CalPERS Investment Returns, 1997-2017

One could argue that stocks rise and fall unpredictably but over the long run their positive performance is reliable. This is validated by looking at the average returns for CalPERS over the past 20 years, as shown in the next chart. As can be seen, over the past 20 years, CalPERS has generated an average return of 6.58%, very close to the average they claim they can earn, currently set at 7.0%.

CalPERS Average Return Over Various Time Spans Ending 6/30/2017

Ok, so CalPERS said they could hit 7.0% and over the last twenty years, they hit 6.58%. What’s wrong?

Actually, a lot is wrong. Here goes:

(1)  It doesn’t seem like very much, but the difference between a 7.0% rate of return and a 6.58% rate of return is actually quite significant. The impact of compound interest over the multi-generational time span of pension fund investments magnifies the impact of even a small reduction in how much pension systems expect to earn. For example, the difference between 7.0% and 6.58% is 0.42%, a little less than one-half of one percent. But that 0.42% reduction increases the required annual contribution as a percent of payroll from 23.0% to 25.8% – and as a fully funded plan becomes unfunded, as will be seen, the “catch up” contributions start to pile up.

(2)  While CalPERS currently assumes a long-term annual rate of return of 7.0%, back in 2001 they assumed an 8.25% rate of return (ref. CalPERS 2001 CAFR, “Economic Assumptions,” page 73). The gap between 8.25% and 6.58% is huge. If pension system actuaries predict an 8.25% annual investment return, a fully funded plan only has to receive annual contributions of 16.4% of payroll, compared to 25.8% based on a prediction of 6.58% returns. Based on this analysis, back in 2001, when CalPERS should have been collecting 25.8% of payroll, they were only collecting 16.4% of payroll.

Before all these numbers start to swim about incoherently, the next chart shows the bottom line result. Back in 1999, CalPERS had invested assets totaling $149 billion. The present value of their pension obligations to current and future retirees was estimated at $116 billion, which is to say they had a surplus of $33 billion. Put another way, their assets exceeded their liabilities by 128%. No wonder they worked with public sector unions to increase pension benefit formulas. But by 6/30/2016 – the most recent data available – CalPERS had assets of $298 billion, but they had liabilities of $436 billion. That is, they were now only 68% funded, and they had a deficit of $138 billion. The chart below dramatically illustrates this nearly twenty year decline in the financial health of CalPERS.

CalPERS Unfunded Liability by Year, 1999-2016

The financial challenges facing CalPERS are even worse than this chart indicates, because when a pension system is fully funded, it can much more easily absorb a few years of market losses. But despite earning 6.58% over the past 18 years, CalPERS has gone from 128% funded to only 68% funded. They have gone from having a $33 billion surplus to having a $138 billion deficit. When the investments that have soared over the past eight years endure the inevitable downward correction, CalPERS will be even more underfunded. Put another way, pension systems should be registering deficits like this at the end of a bear market, not after eight years of a bull market.

The bull market did not save the pension funds. If it had, CalPERS would have a surplus, not a $138 billion deficit.

Taxpayers, public servants, elected officials, pension fund management, public sector union leadership: Beware. Public sector pensions are not financially healthy, they are going to require higher contributions every year, and what precarious stability they do maintain is only a result of a bull market that is very long in the tooth.

REFERENCES

CalPERS Annual Report 2017 (ref. page 120 for data on funded status 2007-2017)

CalPERS Annual Report 2008 (ref. page 64 for data on funded status 2006-2002)

CalPERS Annual Report 2004 (ref. page 56 for data on funded status 2001-1999)

Graphics to Explain the Pension Crisis to Colleagues and Constituents

Explaining the Pension Crisis – Additional Graphics

Pension Questions To Ask Your Agency’s CFO, Actuary & Auditor

The source for the pension contributions required at various rates of return were calculated using the downloadable Excel spreadsheet “Pension Analysis Model.” A tutorial on how to use that model is provided in the article “A Pension Analysis Tool for Everyone.” Please note this Excel model calculates the “normal contribution” only, and does not calculate required contributions as a percent of payroll for underfunded systems.

The Coming Public Pension Apocalypse, and What to Do About It, CPC Study, 2016

Marc Joffe from the Reason Foundation contributed to this article.

Rhetoric to Challenge California’s Statist Elites

California’s ruling elites have enacted policies that make it impossible for middle class citizens to live here. They have artificially elevated the cost of living, nearly destroyed public education, decimated public services, neglected public infrastructure, and declared war on small business. To deflect criticism, they’ve convinced a critical mass of voters that any attempts to roll back these abominable policies are being engineered by racist, sexist plutocrats, and their willing puppets in the Republican party.

Exposing this diabolical, conniving scam won’t be easy. The ruling elites are a powerful coalition, comprised of left wing oligarchs including most of Silicon Valley’s billionaires, California’s public sector unions armed with the billion dollars (or more) they collect every year in forced dues, and the environmentalist lobby and their powerful trial lawyer cohorts.

Defeating California’s ruling elite requires a new coalition, comprised of the private sector middle class, enlightened members of the public sector middle class, and members of disadvantaged communities that aspire to the middle class. Attracting members of these communities, especially California’s Latinos, Asians, and African Americans, requires convincing them that current policies actually harm their interests.

To do this, there are two moral arguments the elites make that have to be debunked, because they underlie all of the intrusive, statist policies that are destroying California’s middle class. The first is the argument that capitalism is inherently evil and must be strictly curbed if not completely replaced by socialism. The second is the argument that unprecedented sacrifices must be made in order to save the planet from an environmental catastrophe.

Corrupt Capitalism vs Competitive Capitalism

Here are examples of two very different ways to critique wealth. In each example, the first phrase is employed by the ruling elites. It feeds on resentment and ignorance. The second phrase is offered as a counter argument. It appeals to the aspiring middle class family, or the small businessperson. It is designed to extol the positive virtues of capitalism and expose the opportunistic cynicism of the statist elites.

(1) “Tax the corporations” vs “make corporations compete.”

(2) “Capitalism is inherently evil” vs “no economic system in history has delivered more individual freedom and prosperity.”

(3) “Wealth is usually the result of privilege” vs “Wealth is usually the result of hard work in a free society.”

(4) “Government needs to regulate corporations” vs “corrupt corporations use regulations to destroy their smaller competitors.”

(5) “We have to redistribute wealth so people can afford to live” vs “we have to nurture capitalist competition to lower the cost of living.”

These arguments shine a spotlight on the great con job promulgated by the elites: The ruling class does not care about you, but we do. Because like you, we have to try to make payments on a half-million or even a million dollar mortgage, just to own a small house. Like you, we have to pay more for gasoline and electricity than any other citizens in any other state in America. Like you, we have to send our children to failing K-12 schools, then sink further into debt to pay tuition for them to attend colleges and universities where they don’t get a good education.

Extreme Environmentalism vs Practical Environmentalism

Apart from the distraction of race and gender, environmentalism provides the moral argument used as cover for policies that have imposed a punitive cost of living on Californians. It is important to make the distinction between attacks that discredit environmentalism in its entirety, and environmentalist reform that exposes the hidden agendas and inherent futility of California’s extremist environmental policies. Here are examples of two very different ways to apply environmentalist values.

(1) “Stop urban sprawl” vs “California has 163,000 square miles of land and is nearly empty, adding 10 million more people on quarter acre lots (even including new roads and new commercial/industrial centers) would consume less than 2,000 square miles!”

(2) “People need to live in multi-family dwellings” vs “detached single family homes are cheaper per unit to build than multi-family dwellings, and are more popular among buyers.”

(3) “There isn’t enough water for people to have detached homes and yards” vs “for less than $20 billion, we could build enough desalination capacity to provide water to every home and business in Los Angeles County; farming consumes 80% of all water diversions in California, we are exporting water intensive crops like alfalfa, grown using massively subsidized water, in the Imperial Valley (desert)!”

(4) “The government needs to discourage further development of fossil fuels such as clean natural gas” vs “Californians are paying as much as ten times what energy consumers pay for electricity in low cost states, and that California’s CO2 emissions are a minute fraction of those from other nations such as China and India.”

(5) “We have to get people out of their cars and build passenger rail” vs “cars, trucks and buses offer far more convenience and versatility, and are on the verge of becoming 100% clean and sustainable modes of transportation.”

(6) “No new mines and quarries should be allowed within California, and existing ones should be phased out” vs “developing in-state natural resources creates in-state jobs and costs less than importing materials from elsewhere in the U.S. and Canada.”

When the elites demand “environmental justice” for people of color, ask them (using the San Francisco Bay Area as an example) what any of that has to do with why we can’t build homes on the eastern slopes of the Mt. Hamilton Range, or in San Jose’s Coyote Valley, or along the I-280 corridor in the Santa Cruz mountains. Ask them why they’re paying 60% of their income for rent or a mortgage, when California has 163,000 square miles of land and is nearly empty. Ask why money that is being spent on high speed rail, using imported materials, isn’t instead being used to create high paying jobs in road and infrastructure projects that will actually improve lives. Ask why thousands of people aren’t working in high paying jobs in mining and quarrying, so building materials can cost less.

For aggressive reformers, good questions are plentiful. What have California’s elites done for working families? Have they gotten you better jobs? Have they nurtured robust and competitive housing markets to lower the price of a home? Have they widened the freeways? Have they enabled competition to drive down the cost-of-living? Have they made your communities safe and prosperous and affordable? Have they done anything other than bribe your so-called leaders with campaign contributions so they’ll do what they’re told?

It comes down to this: These purported spokespersons for true environmentalist values have become personally successful by fomenting environmentalist panic, but they do not represent the best interests of ordinary Californians, and they do not articulate a realistic or practical vision of environmentalism.

California’s elite has declared war on the working class. They have used race as a distraction, and extreme environmentalism as the phony moral justification for their self-serving policies. They must be exposed.

The Moral High Ground

This fact – that the rhetoric of California’s elite does not translate into a better quality of life for the people they govern – is the core moral argument against current policies. Across virtually every issue, the policies of the elites are failing ordinary Californians. Pouring money into public schools has not helped students. Raising taxes has not improved services. Expanding college curricula that replace academic rigor with what amounts to political indoctrination has not improved employment opportunities for graduates. And creating artificial scarcity in the name of saving the planet has not helped the planet, but it has impoverished millions of California’s most economically vulnerable residents.

In claiming the moral high ground, reformers can use the same rhetoric the elites have employed for decades, and by doing so will find the elites have already done much of their work for them. The seditious goal of making California friendlier to small businesses, with more affordable housing, more affordable energy, better jobs and better schools is furthered by reminding Californians what the elites have done. They have engaged in one of the biggest cons of all time, enriching themselves at the expense of the average worker.

Once the issues of race and environmentalism are exposed as overstated issues, overemphasized in order to manipulate the electorate, then the resentment the elites have inculcated in their constituents can be turned against them.

Pro-growth policies don’t have to rely on terminology that has been tainted by the status-quo elites. “Free market,” “Libertarian,” “Conservative,” “Classical liberal,” etc. have seductive appeal for many ideologically driven reformers, but they have limited value in California politics. Reformers have to supplement their vocabulary, borrowing more from the left than from the right. The values and slogans that the ruling class has invested decades in inculcating in the minds of Californians can be used against them, because these elites have engaged in rank hypocrisy. Terms such as “social justice” and “equity” now have tremendous value to reformers, because reform policies will further those goals, whereas the policies implemented by California’s elite have condemned ordinary people to poverty.

Examples of using terms popular with the left to advance reformer causes:
Social justice – charter schools, teacher accountability
Civil Rights – the right to a quality education in a school chosen by parents
Equity – competitive land development to create affordable housing
Micro-aggression – countless taxes, hidden taxes, fees and regulations
Fairness – prices for energy and water competitive with other states
Progressive – pension benefits with lower percentage formulas for highly paid public employees
Diversity – college curricula that embrace conservative as well as liberal values
Anti-Discrimination – merit based, color blind criteria for hiring and college admissions

A pragmatic, centrist ideology that co-opts the rhetoric of the status-quo elites to attack the ruling class can resist being pigeonholed as left or right, or conservative or socialist. We are pragmatists. We are pro-growth, pro-job Californians and our policies will lead to prosperity, affordable housing, affordable utilities, affordable education, and social justice and equity for all Californians, and not just the elites.

CalPERS is shocked – just shocked – to find cities reeling under the burden of growing pension debt

Did CalPERS Fail to Disclose Costs of Historic Bump in Pension Benefits?

How would you feel if someone told you they’d just increased your retirement benefit by 50%, took five years off the age you’d have to be when you could retire and collect this benefit, and then told you there would be almost no additional cost because the stock market was roaring? In California, that’s what happened in December 1999. “You” were “ALL PUBLIC AGENCIES,” and their countless thousands of public employees, and “someone” was the biggest public employee retirement system in the state, CalPERS. Click here to read the agency’s 12/23/1999 analysis.

Then how would you like it, two years later, after the market had “corrected,” you were told, via a CalPERS board resolution, that an “exception” had been made to generally accepted actuarial accounting standards, and you could choose to value your savings that had been set aside to pay for your retirement benefits at a value 10% greater than the actual market value of those assets at the time? That’s what happened in June 2001. Click here to read that 6/06/2001 letter.

Did CalPERS comply with the law when they did this?

Today, we’re left to wonder whether those actions violated state law. California Government Code Section 7507 requires that an enrolled actuary notify elected officials of the actual costs of any benefit increase.

Here is an excerpt from Section 7507:

The Legislature and local legislative bodies shall secure the services of an enrolled actuary to provide a statement of the actuarial impact upon future annual costs before authorizing increases in public retirement plan benefits. An “enrolled actuary” means an actuary enrolled under subtitle C of Title III of the federal Employee Retirement Income Security Act of 1974 and “future annual costs” shall include, but not be limited to, annual dollar increases or the total dollar increases involved when available.

The California Policy Center recently re-released a policy brief entitled “Did Your Agency Comply with the Law When Increasing Pension Formulas?” That policy brief provides clear instructions to any local elected official or local activist who would like to gather and view for themselves possible evidence of 7507 violations in their city or county.

The stakes are high. Senate Bill 400, enacted in 1999, increased pension benefit formulas by roughly 50 percent for California Highway Patrol officers. Over the next five years or so, nearly every state agency, city, and county in California followed suit, not only for their police and firefighters, but for all public employees regardless of their job description. The ongoing financial impact of this on civic budgets has been severe, and there is no end in sight.

Back in 1999, pension expenses as a percent of total operating budgets in California averaged around 3 percent. Today they average over 11 percent. Depending on how fast agencies are required to pay down the unfunded liabilities on their pension obligations, and depending on how pension investments perform over the next several years, pension expenses as a percent of total operating budgets in California could rise to over 30 percent.

With rare and incremental exceptions, all attempts so far to reform pensions – and so restore financial sustainability and robust services to California’s public agencies – have been thwarted. Reformers continue to challenge these special interests in court, but progress has been slow and expensive, with no rulings of any significance.

Did CalPERS comply with the law when they offered their agency clients the option to greatly increase pension benefits? Did they comply with California Government Code Section 7507?

Using Pacific Grove as an example of CalPERS’ followup, here’s the “Contract Amendment Cost Analysis – Valuation Basis: June 30, 2000,” in which a CalPERS actuary presented to Pacific Grove’s elected officials three distinct values for the assets they had invested with CalPERS, and gave them the liberty to choose which one they’d like to use. The higher the value they chose for their existing assets, the lower the cost from CalPERS to pay for the benefit enhancements they were contemplating.

Option 1: “No increase in actuarial value of pension fund assets.”

Option 2: “Actuarial value of assets increased by twice the increase in the present value of benefits due to this amendment, limited to 100% of market value of assets.”

Option 3: “Actuarial value of assets increased by twice the increase in the present value of benefits due to the amendment, limited to 110% of market value of assets.”

In plain English, the CalPERS actuary is inviting the elected officials to pick from three differing calculations of how much money they’ve already set aside to cover future retirement payments. The difference between “actuarial value of assets” and “market value of assets” is what creates this wiggle room. While the pension fund investments may have a well-defined market value at any point in time, in order to avoid having to continually adjust how much needs to be contributed into the fund by the employers each year, a “smoothing” calculation is applied that takes into account the market values in previous years.

Obviously, based on the above three choices, how assets get “smoothed” is a subjective exercise. Otherwise there would only be one option. So guess which option was chosen by the City of Pacific Grove? Evaluating the table on page 4 of the 6/30/2000 CalPERS cost analysis provides hints.

Option 1: Employer contribution will be 25.1% of payroll.

Option 2: Employer contribution will be 20.0% of payroll.

Option 3: Employer contribution will be 6.2% of payroll.

Pacific Grove selected option 3. Is that any surprise? Consider this absurdity: CalPERS left it up to these elected officials to enact their benefit enhancement, and then told them the cost to do so could vary by over 400 percent. Of course they picked the low payment option.

Did this disclosure comply with California Government Code Section 7507? Despite the presence of disclaimers dutifully included by CalPERS, arguably it did not. CalPERS offered Pacific Grove three alternative valuations for their pension fund investments, and then presented three very different payment requirements depending on which option they chose. The diligent reader will investigate these documents in vain for additional evidence that CalPERS offered Pacific Grove – or any of its other participating agencies – a usable “statement of the actuarial impact upon future annual costs.”

Even the actuary who wrote the analysis for Pacific Grove hedged his bets. In the “Certification” section on page 5, the actuary wrote, “The valuation has been prepared in accordance with generally accepted actuarial practice except that [italics added], under a CalPERS Board resolution, an increased actuarial value of assets may be substituted for the actuarial value of assets that would have been produced by the current and generally accepted actuarial asset smoothing method described in the annual report.”

What CalPERS did was to offer public agencies the option to “smooth” upwards the value of the assets they’d set aside to cover those enhanced retirement benefits they’d awarded during the stock market bubble. They persisted in these tactics to enable agencies that had not yet enhanced their benefits to do so, in order to “compete” with other agencies and retain employees.

Not only were these asset values smoothed, of course. The payments demanded each year by CalPERS were also smoothly increased. Smoothly and inexorably, with no end in sight.

REFERENCES

CalPERS notice to All Public Agencies, 12-23-1999 – “New 3% @ 55 and 3% @ 50 Formulas, and Change in Benefits Cap for Safety Members”
http://calocalelectedofficials.org/wp-content/uploads/CalPERS-December-23-1999-Letter-Regarding-3-at-50-to-Agencies.pdf

CalPERS notice to All Public Agencies, 6/06/2001 – “New CalPERS Board Resolution Concerning Value of Assets Used in Calculation of Cost of Contract Amendments”
http://calocalelectedofficials.org/wp-content/uploads/CalPERS-July-6-2001-Letter-to-Agencies.pdf

CalPERS analysis for City of Pacific Grove – “Contract Amendment Cost Analysis – Valuation Basis: June 30, 2000
http://calocalelectedofficials.org/wp-content/uploads/Pacific-Grove-CalPERS-3-at-50-Cost-Estimate.pdf

CLEO Policy Brief – “Did Your Agency Comply with the Law When Increasing Pension Formulas?”
https://calocalelectedofficials.org/determine-city-county-complied-law-increasing-pension-formulas/

California Senate Bill 400, enacted 1999
http://www.leginfo.ca.gov/pub/99-00/bill/sen/sb_0351-0400/sb_400_bill_19990929_chaptered.html

CLEO Policy Brief – “Coping With the Pension Albatross” – provides links to sources for historical and projected escalation of pension costs as a percent of operating budgets
https://calocalelectedofficials.org/coping-pension-albatross/

How Can Local Officials Prepare for the Upcoming Janus vs AFSCME Ruling?

“A public employer shall provide all public employees an orientation and shall permit the exclusive representative, if applicable, to participate.”
– Excerpt from California State Assembly Bill AB 52, December 2016

In plain English, AB 52 requires every local government agency in California to bring union representatives into contact with every new hire, to “allow workers the opportunity to hear from their union about their contractual rights and benefits.” What’s this all about?

As explained by Adam Ashton, writing for the Sacramento Bee, “New California government workers will hear from union representatives almost as soon as they start their jobs under a state budget provision bolstering labor groups as they prepare for court decisions that may cut into their membership and revenue.”

Ashton is referring to the case set to be heard by the U.S. Supreme Court early next year, Janus v. American Federation of State, County, and Municipal Employees. A ruling is expected by mid-year. It is possible, if not likely, that the ruling will change the rules governing public sector union membership. In pro-union states like California, public sector workers are required to pay “agency fees,” which constitute the vast majority of union revenue, even if they laboriously opt-out of paying that portion of union dues that are used explicitly for political campaigning and lobbying.

Needless to say, this law is designed to allow union representatives to get to newly hired public employees as soon as they walk in the door, in order to convince them to join the union and pay those dues. But can anyone argue against union membership?

The short answer is no. To deter such shenanigans, SB 285, thoughtfully introduced by Senator Atkins (D-San Diego), adds the following section to the Government Code: “A public employer shall not deter or discourage public employees from becoming or remaining members of an employee organization.” Governor Brown signed this legislation on October 9th. So much for equal time.

So what can local elected officials do, those among them who actually want to do their part to attenuate the torrent of taxpayer funded dues pouring into the coffers of public employee unions in California? Can they provide the contact information for public employees to outside groups who may be able to provide equal time?

Once again, the answer is no. To deter access even to the agency emails of public employees, a new law bans public agencies from releasing the personal email addresses of government workers, creating a new exemption in the California Public Records Act. Those email addresses could be used by union reformers to provide the facts to public employees. How this all became law provides another example of just how powerful public sector unions are in Sacramento.

In order to quickly get the primary provision of AB 52 enacted, which allows union representatives into new public employee orientations, along with a provision to deny public access to public employee emails, both were added at the last minute to the California Legislature’s 2017-2018 budget trailer bill, AB 119. The union access to new employee orientations is Article 1. The denial of email access is Article 2.

So how are the unions preparing for the Janus ruling? By (1) making sure the union operatives get to new employees as soon as they begin working, (2) by preventing agency employers from saying anything to deter new employees from joining the unions, and (3) by preventing anyone else from getting the official agency emails for new employees in order to inform them of their rights to not join a union. That’s a lot.

So what can you do, if union reformers control a majority on your agency board or city council, and you in a position to try to oppose these unions?

First, examine the legal opinions surrounding the wording of SB 285, “A public employer shall not deter or discourage public employees from becoming or remaining members of an employee organization.” The words “deter” and “discourage” do not in any way preclude providing facts. Consider this preliminary opinion posted on the website of the union-controlled Public Employee Relations Board:

“One major concern I have is that the terms “deter” and “discourage” are not defined. What if an employee comes to an employer with questions about what it means to be a member of the union, and the employer provides truthful responses. For example, assume that the employer confirms that being a member will mean paying dues. What if that has the effect of deterring or discouraging the employee from joining the union?”

It is possible for employers to present facts regarding union membership without violating the new law. Find out what disclosures remain permissible, and make sure new employees get the information.

Another step that can be taken, although probably not by local elected officials, is to challenge the new law that exempts public agency emails from public information act requests. And apart from accessing their work emails, there are other ways that outside groups can communicate with public employees to make sure they are aware of their rights.

California’s public employee unions collect and spend over $1.0 billion per year. If the Janus vs AFSCME ruling takes away the ability of government unions to compel payment of agency fees, and imposes annual opt-in requirements for both agency fees and political dues, these unions will collect less money. How much less will depend on courage and innovative thinking on the part of reformers who want to rescue California from unionized government.

REFERENCES

Get a state job and meet your labor rep: How state budget protects California unions, Sacramento Bee, June 21, 2017
http://www.sacbee.com/news/politics-government/the-state-worker/article156146364.html

AB 52, Public employees: orientation and informational programs: exclusive representatives, California Legislature
https://leginfo.legislature.ca.gov/faces/billTextClient.xhtml?bill_id=201720180AB52

Janus v. American Federation of State, County, and Municipal Employees, Supreme Court of the United States Blog
http://www.scotusblog.com/case-files/cases/janus-v-american-federation-state-county-municipal-employees-council-31/

SB 285, Atkins. Public employers: union organizing, California Legislature
https://leginfo.legislature.ca.gov/faces/billNavClient.xhtml?bill_id=201720180SB285

2017-2018 budget trailer bill, AB 119, California Legislature
https://leginfo.legislature.ca.gov/faces/billTextClient.xhtml?bill_id=201720180AB119

California Public Records Act, Office of the Attorney General
http://ag.ca.gov/publications/summary_public_records_act.pdf

Fact Sheet – AB 52 (Cooper) & SB 285 (Atkins), California Labor Federation
http://calaborfed.org/wp-content/uploads/2017/04/2-AB-52-Cooper-and-SB-285-Atkinsweb.pdf

Legislative Bulletin – California School Employees Association
http://www.csea.com/web/portals/0/csea_pdf/leg_rpt.pdf

SB 285: Public Employers Cannot Discourage Union Membership, Public Employee Relations Board
http://www.caperb.com/2017/04/04/sb-285-public-employers-cannot-discourage-union-membership/

Public employee unions wield hefty Atkins stick [SB 285], San Diego Reader
https://www.sandiegoreader.com/news/2017/aug/28/ticker-public-employee-unions-wield-atkins-stick/#

Coping With the Pension Albatross

Instead of the cross, the albatross
About my neck was hung.
–  Samuel Taylor Coleridge, The Rime of the Ancient Mariner, 1798

In Coleridge’s famous poem, a sailor who killed an albatross has it hung around his neck as punishment. Since then, the albatross, which sailors used to consider good luck, has come to symbolize an oppressive burden. When it comes to ensuring the financial sustainability of California’s cities and counties, few burdens have become more oppressive than funding employee pensions.

A study issued earlier this month entitled “Pension Math: Public Pension Spending and Service Crowd Out in California, 2003-2030,” by the Stanford Institute for Economic Policy Research, offers comprehensive and visceral proof of just how big the pension albatross has become around the fiscal necks of California’s cities and counties, and how much bigger it’s likely to grow. Recent articles by pension expert Ed Mendel and political watchdog Steve Greenhut provide excellent summaries. To distill the “Pension Math” study to a few ominous and definitive quotations, here are two that describe how dramatically pension costs have eaten into California’s civic budgets:

“Employer pension contributions from 2002-03 to 2017-18 have increased at a much faster rate than operating expenditures. As noted, pension contributions increased an average of 400%; operating expenditures grew 46%. As a result, pension contributions now consume on average 11.4% of all operating expenditures, more than three times their 3.9% share in 2002-03.”

And the fun is just beginning:

“The pension share of operating expenditures is projected to increase further by 2029-30: to 14.0% under the baseline projection—that is, even if all system assumptions, including assumed investment rates of return, are met—or to 17.5% under the alternative projection.”

Back in 2016, the California Policy Center produced a study entitled “The Coming Public Pension Apocalypse, and What to Do About It.” In that study (ref. Table 2-C), the implications of adopting responsible paydowns of the unfunded liability (20 year straight-line amortization which CalPERS is now recommending), are explored, along with various rate-of-return assumptions. Quote:

“A city that pays 10% of their total revenues into the pension funds, and there are plenty of them, at an ROI of 7.5% and an honest repayment plan for the unfunded liability, should be paying 17% of their revenues into the pension systems. At a ROI of 6.5%, these cities would pay 24% of their revenue to pensions. At 5.5%, 32%.”

These are staggering conclusions. Only a few years ago, opponents of pension reform disparaged reformers by repeatedly asserting that pension costs only consumed 3% of total operating expenses. Now those costs have tripled and quadrupled, and there is no end in sight. What can local elected officials do?

The short answer is not much. At least not yet. The city of Irvine provides a cautionary example of how a city did everything right, and still lost ground. In 2013, Irvine’s city council resolved to eliminate their unfunded pension liability in 10 years by making massive extra annual payments out of their reserve fund. As reported in detail last week in the article “How Fraudulently Low “Normal Contributions” Wreak Havoc on Civic Finances,” here is the upshot of what happened in Irvine between 2013 and 2017:

“While the stock market roared, and while Irvine massively overpaid on their unfunded liability, that unfunded liability still managed to increase by 51%.”

There are plenty of ways for California’s cities and counties to get the pension albatross off their fiscal necks, except for one thing. The people who receive these generous pensions (the average pension for a full-career retired public employee in California, not including benefits, was $68,673 in 2015) are the same people who, through their unions, exercise almost absolute control over California’s cities and counties.

Spokespersons for public sector unions scoff at this assertion. “Politicians are mismanaging our cities and counties,” they allege, “blame the politicians.” And of course they’re right. Politicians do run our cities and counties. But these politicians have their campaigns funded by the public sector unions. Even when a majority of city council or county supervisor seats are won by politicians willing to refuse campaign contributions from public sector unions, any reforms they enact are reversed as soon as the unions can reestablish a majority. And if reformers can stay in control of a city or county through multiple election cycles, any reforms they enact are relentlessly fought in court by the unions. Meanwhile, California’s union controlled state legislature enacts law after law designed to prohibit meaningful reform.

This is the reality we live in. Californians pay taxes in order to pay state and local government employees a wage and benefit package that averages twice what private sector workers earn.

Here’s what can be done:

(1) Convince citizens to always vote against any candidate supported by a public sector union.

(2) Convince public sector union officials that the pension crisis is real so at least they will agree to minor reforms. The recent Stanford study, along with the recently introduced CalPERS agency summaries, should provide convincing leverage.

(3) Continue to implement incremental reform either through council action, local ballot measures, or in contract negotiations. They may include:
– lower pension formulas for new employees
– lower base pay in order to lower final pension calculations
– eliminating binding arbitration
For more ideas, refer to Pension Reform – The San Jose Model, Pension Reform – The San Diego Model, and Reforming Binding Arbitration.

(4) Support policies designed to lower the cost-of-living. California’s union controlled legislature has created artificial scarcity in almost all sectors of the economy, driving prices up and providing the justification for public employees to demand wages and benefits that allow them to exempt themselves (but not the rest of us) from the consequences of those policies.

(5) Wait for resolution of two critical court cases. The first is the case Janus vs. AFSCME, challenging the right of government unions to charge “agency fees” to members who opt out of membership. That case is set to be heard by the U.S. Supreme Court in 2018. The second is the ongoing court challenges to the “California Rule.” Attorneys representing California’s government unions claim the California Rule prohibits changing the formulas governing pension benefit accruals even for work not yet performed. California’s Supreme Court is set to hear this case after an appeals court rules on three cases – from Alameda, Contra Costa, and Merced counties. Both of these cases should be resolved sometime in 2018.

The Janus case could decisively lower the amount of money public sector unions currently manage to extract from dues paying public employees, which in California alone is estimated to exceed $1.0 billion per year. A successful challenge to the California Rule would pave the way for real pension reform. Current legal interpretations of the California Constitution bar reductions to pension formulas, even for work that has not yet been performed. This is the so-called “California Rule.” If that interpretation were overturned, pension benefit accruals for future work done by existing employees could be lowered to financially sustainable levels.

All in all, today the pension albatross weighs heavy on the fiscal necks of California’s public agencies, and it’s getting worse, not better. If there were easy answers, the problem would have been solved long ago.

REFERENCES

Pension Math: Public Pension Spending and Service Crowd Out in California, 2003-2030
https://siepr.stanford.edu/sites/default/files/publications/17-023.pdf

How pension costs reduce government services, Ed Mendel, CalPensions, 10/09/2017
https://calpensions.com/2017/10/09/how-pension-costs-reduce-government-services/

Forget the scary pension future; study confirms the crisis is hitting now, Steve Greenhut, California Policy Center, 10/10/2017
http://californiapolicycenter.org/forget-scary-pension-future-study-confirms-crisis-hitting-now/

The Coming Public Pension Apocalypse, and What to Do About It
http://californiapolicycenter.org/the-coming-public-pension-apocalypse/

How Fraudulently Low “Normal Contributions” Wreak Havoc on Civic Finances
https://calocalelectedofficials.org/fraudulently-low-normal-contributions-wreak-havoc-civic-finances/

What is the Average Pension for a Retired Government Worker in California?
http://californiapolicycenter.org/what-is-the-average-pension-for-a-retired-government-worker-in-california/

California’s Public Sector Compensation Trends
http://californiapolicycenter.org/californias-public-sector-compensation-trends/

Average Full Career Pension by City (all CalPERS employers), Transparent California
http://transparentcalifornia.com/pensions/2016/calpers/employers/?s=-average

Public Agency Actuarial Valuation Reports by CalPERS Agency
https://www.calpers.ca.gov/page/employers/actuarial-services/employer-contributions/public-agency-actuarial-valuation-reports

Pension Reform – The San Jose Model
https://calocalelectedofficials.org/pension-reform-san-jose-model/

Pension Reform – The San Diego Model
https://calocalelectedofficials.org/pension-reform-the-san-diego-model/

Reforming Binding Arbitration
https://calocalelectedofficials.org/reforming-binding-arbitration/

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…

 *   *   *

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!

Pension Reform – The San Jose Model

Pension reform in San Jose began in June 2012 when voters, by a margin of 69% to 31%, approved Measure B. Despite overwhelming support from voters, however, this vote triggered a cascade of union funded lawsuits which by 2015 had overturned several of the key provisions of the reform measure. Finally, in August 2015, the San Jose city council passed a compromise resolution that replaced Measure B with a scaled down reform; this was approved by voters in November 2016.

The provisions of this new pension reform measure should be of keen interest to local reformers everywhere in California, because they survived relentless attacks in court. While these reforms may not prove sufficient to completely solve the challenge to adequately fund pension benefits for city workers in San Jose, they are nonetheless significant. San Jose’s current unfunded pension liability now stands at just over $3.0 billion. These reforms are estimated to save $1.7 billion over the next ten years. Here are highlights:

HIGHLIGHTS OF SAN JOSE’S 2016 PENSION REFORM

1 –  Voter approval required from now on:
Any retirement benefit – including pensions and retirement healthcare – cannot be enhanced as the result of negotiations between the city council and union leadership, unless those enhancements are first approved by voters.

2 – New employees will be subject to a reformed package of retirement benefits:
Employees hired after the following dates (Police, 8/04/2013; Fire, 1/02/2015; Misc., 9/30/2012) shall be deemed “Tier II” employees, with the following retirement benefits:

  • Cost sharing: The city shall not pay more than 50% of the normal and unfunded payments due the pension system; this will be phased in by increasing the employee share of the unfunded payment at a rate of 0.33% of additional withholding of their pay per year.
  • Age of eligibility: Police and firefighters shall be eligible for retirement benefits at age 57; miscellaneous employees at age 62.
  • Cost of living adjustments: annual COLA increases to pensions shall be limited to the lessor of the CPI index or between 2.0% and 1.25%.
  • Pension eligible compensation: Final compensation for purposes of calculating the pension shall be based on the average of the final three years of work, and (with some exceptions for police and firefighters) be limited to base pay only.
  • Cap on pension benefit: Police and fire retiree pensions are capped at 80% of pension eligible salary, for miscellaneous employees the cap is 70% of pension eligible salary.

3 – “Disability” retirements awarded by independent panel.

4 – “Supplemental Payments” discontinued:
Prior to this reform, whenever investment returns in any given year exceeded the target percentage, supplemental payments were made to retirees. This practice took place even when the pension system was carrying a significant unfunded liability. This new provision even bars supplemental payments if the fund eventually exceeds 100% funding, in order to take into account the possibility that subsequent annual returns may again fall short of projections.

5 – Defined benefit retirement healthcare discontinued:
The defined benefit retiree healthcare plan is ended and instead a Voluntary Employee Beneficiary Association (VEBA) is established for new and current Tier 2 employees. The contribution rate will be 4% into the VEBA. Tier One employees can opt-in to the new VEBA, or keep their defined benefit healthcare plan with a contribution rate of 8% of payroll.

6 – Retirement contributions fixed:
Similar in intent to item #4, even if the pension system becomes more than 100% funded, there will be no lowering of the required employee contributions to the fund via payroll withholding – again, to take into account the possibility that subsequent annual returns may again fall short of projections.

7 – No retroactive benefits enhancements:
If retirement benefits are approved by voters, they are only to apply to work performed subsequent to the date of approval. If an employee transfers into a new job with the city that offers better retirement benefits than the job they vacated, these enhancements only apply to their work subsequent to their transfer.

PENSION REFORM – SAMPLE LANGUAGE

Section 1503-A. Reservation of Voter Authority.
(a) There shall be no enhancements to defined retirement benefits in effect as of January 1, 2017, without voter approval. A defined retirement benefit is any defined post-employment benefit program, including defined benefit pension plans and defined benefit retiree healthcare benefits. An enhancement is any change to defined retirement benefits, including any change to pension or retiree healthcare benefits or retirement formula that increases the total aggregate cost of the benefit in terms of normal cost and unfunded liability as determined by the Retirement Board’s actuary. This does not include other changes which do not directly modify specific defined retirement benefits, including but not limited to any medical plan design changes, subsequent compensation increases which may increase an employee’s final compensation, or any assumption changes as determined by the Retirement Board.

(b) If the State Legislature or the voters of the State of California enact a requirement of voter approval for the continuation of defined pension benefits, the voters of the City of San Jose hereby approve the continuation of the pension benefits in existence at the time of passage of the State measure including those established by this measure.

Section 1504-A. Retirement Benefits – Tier 2.
The Tier 2 retirement plan shall include the following benefits listed below. This retirement program shall be referred to as “Tier 2” and shall be effective for employees hired on or after the following dates except as otherwise provided in this section: (1) Sworn Police Officers: August 4, 2013; (2) Sworn Firefighters: January 2, 2015 and (3) Federated: September 30, 2012. Employees initially hired before the effective date of Tier 2 shall be Tier 1 employees, even if subsequently rehired. Employees who qualify as “classic” lateral employees under the Public Employees’ Pension Reform Act and are initially hired by the City of San Jose on or after January 1, 2013, are considered Tier 1 employees.

(a) Cost Sharing. The City’s cost for the Tier 2 defined benefit plan shall not exceed 50% of the total cost of the Tier 2 defined benefit plan (both normal cost and unfunded liabilities), except as provided herein. Normal cost shall always be split 50/50.In the event an unfunded liability is determined to exist, employees will contribute toward the unfunded liability in increasing increments of 0.33% per year, with the City paying the balance of the unfunded liability, until such time that the unfunded liability is shared 50/50 between the employer and employee.

(b) Age. The age of eligibility for service retirement shall be 57 for employees in the Police and Fire Retirement Plans and 62 for employees in the Federated Retirement System. Earlier Retirement may be permitted with a reduction in pension benefit by a factor of 7% per year for employees in the Police and Fire Retirement Plan and a reduction in pension benefit by a factor of 5% per year for employees in the Federated Retirement System. An employee is not eligible for a service retirement earlier than the age of 50 for employees in the Police and Fire Retirement Plan or age 55 for employees in the Federated Retirement System. Tier 2 employees shall be eligible for a service retirement after earning five years of retirement service credit.

(c) COLA. Cost of living adjustments, or COLA, shall be equal to the increase in the Consumer Price Index (CPI), defined as San Jose – San Francisco – Oakland U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics index, CPI-Urban Consumers, December to December, with the following limitations:

1. For Police and Fire Retirement Plan members, cost of living adjustments applicable to the retirement allowance shall be the lesser of the Consumer Price Index (CPI), or 2.0%.

2. For Federated Retirement System members, cost of living adjustments applicable to the retirement allowance shall be the lesser of CPI or:
a. 1-10 total years of City service and hired after the effective date of the implementing ordinances of the revised Tier 2: 1.25%
b. 1-10 years total years of City service and hired before the effective date of the implementing ordinances of the revised Tier 2: 1.5%
c. 11-20 total years of City service: 1.5%
d. 21-25 total years of City service: 1.75%
e. 26 or more total years of City service: 2.0%

3. The first COLA adjustment will be prorated based on the number of months retired in the first calendar year of retirement.

(d) Final Compensation. “Final compensation” shall mean the average annual earned pay of the highest three consecutive years of service. Final compensation shall be base pay only, excluding premium pays or other additional compensation, except members of the Police and Fire Plan whose pay shall include the same premium pays as Tier 1 members.

(e) Maximum Allowance and Accrual Rate. For Police and Fire Plan members, service retirement benefits shall be capped at a maximum of 80% of final compensation for an employee who has 30 or more years of service at the accrual rate contained in the Alternative Pension Reform Settlement Framework approved by City Council on August 25, 2015. For Federated Retirement System members, service retirement benefits shall be capped at a maximum of 70% of final compensation for an employee who has 35 or more years of service at the accrual rate contained in the Alternative Pension Reform Settlement Framework approved by City Council on December 15, 2015, and January 12, 2016.

(f) Year of Service. An employee will be eligible for a full year of service credit upon reaching 2080 hours of regular time worked (including paid leave, but not including overtime).

Section 1505-A. Disability Retirements.

(a) The definition of “disability” shall be that as contained in the San Jose Municipal Code in Sections 3.36.900 and 3.28.1210 as of the date of this measure.

(b) Each plan member seeking a disability retirement shall have their disability determined by a panel of medical experts appointed by the Retirement Boards.

(c) The independent panel of medical experts will make their determination based upon majority vote, which may be appealed to an administrative law judge.

Section 1506-A. Supplemental Payments to Retirees.

The Supplemental Retiree Benefit Reserve (“SRBR”) has been discontinued, and the assets returned to the appropriate retirement trust fund. In the event assets are required to be retained in the SRBR, no supplemental payments shall be permitted from that fund without voter approval. The SRBR will be replaced with a Guaranteed Purchasing Power (GPP) benefit for all Tier 1 retirees. The GPP is intended to maintain the monthly allowance for Tier 1 retirees at 75% of purchasing power of their original pension benefit effective with the date of the retiree’s retirement. The GPP will apply in limited circumstances (for example, when inflation exceeds the COLA for Tier 1 retirees for an extended period of time). Any calculated benefit will be paid annually in February.

Section 1507-A. Retiree Healthcare.

The defined benefit retiree healthcare plan will be closed to new employees as defined by the San Jose Municipal Code in Chapter 3.36, Part 1 and Chapter 3.28, Part 1. Section 1508-A. Actuarial Soundness (for both pension and retiree healthcare plans).

(a) In recognition of the interests of the taxpayers and the responsibilities to the plan beneficiaries, all pension and retiree healthcare plans shall be operated in conformance with Article XVI, Section 17 of the California Constitution. This includes but is not limited to:

1. All plans and their trustees shall assure prompt delivery of benefits and related services to participants and their beneficiaries;

2. All plans shall be subject to an annual actuarial analysis that is publicly disclosed in order to assure the plan has sufficient assets;

3. All plan trustees shall discharge their duties with respect to the system solely in the interest of, and for the exclusive purposes of providing benefits to participants and their beneficiaries, minimizing employer contributions thereto, and defraying reasonable expenses of administering the system;

4. All plan trustees shall diversify the investments of the system so as to minimize the risk of loss and maximize the rate of return, unless under the circumstances it is not prudent to do so;

5. Determine contribution rates on a stated contribution policy, developed by the retirement system boards and;

6. When investing the assets of the plans, the objective of all plan trustees shall be to maximize the rate of return without undue risk of loss while having proper regard to the funding objectives of the plans and the volatility of the plans’ contributions as a percentage of payroll.

Section 1509-A. Retirement Contributions.

There shall be no offset to normal cost contribution rates in the event plan funding exceeds 100%. Both the City and employees shall always make the full annual required plan contributions as calculated by the Retirement Board actuaries which will be in compliance with applicable laws and will ensure the qualified status under the Internal Revenue Code.

Section 1510-A. No Retroactive Defined Retirement Benefit Enhancements.

(a) Any enhancement to a member’s defined retirement benefit adopted on or after January 1, 2017, shall apply only to service performed on or after the operative date of the enhancement and shall not be applied to any service performed prior to the operative date of the enhancement.

(b) If a change to a member’s retirement membership classification or a change in employment results in an enhancement in the retirement formula or defined retirement benefits applicable to that member, except as otherwise provided under the plans as of [effective date of ordinance], that enhancement shall apply only to service performed on or after the effective date of the change and shall not be applied to any service performed prior to the effective date of the change.

(c) “Operative date” would be the date that any resolution or ordinance implementing the enhancement to a member’s defined retirement formula or defined retirement benefit adopted by the City Council becomes effective.

REFERENCES

City of San Jose, “Alternative Pension Reform Act,” 2016 (full text)
http://sanjoseca.gov/DocumentCenter/View/59737

City of San Jose, Alternative Pension Reform Act Ballot Measure – references for voters, 2016
http://www.sanjoseca.gov/index.aspx?nid=3208

City of San Jose, Framework Agreement summarizing Alternative Pension Reform Act, 2015
http://www.sanjoseca.gov/DocumentCenter/View/46068

City of San Jose, “Sustainable Retirement Benefits and Compensation Act,” 2012 (full text)
http://www.sanjoseca.gov/DocumentCenter/View/5166

City of San Jose, Measure B (Sustainable Benefits and Compensation Act) – references for voters, 2012
http://www.sanjoseca.gov/index.aspx?NID=5187

Ballotpedia – San Jose Pension Modification Agreement, Measure F (November 2016)
https://ballotpedia.org/San_Jose,_California,_Pension_Modification_Agreement,_Measure_F_(November_2016)

Ballotpedia – San Jose Pension Reform, Measure B (June 2012)
https://ballotpedia.org/San_Jose_Pension_Reform,_Measure_B_(June_2012)

San Jose Mercury News, August 25, 2015 – San Jose council approves Measure B settlement
http://www.mercurynews.com/2015/08/25/san-jose-council-approves-measure-b-settlement/