Evaluating Public Safety Pensions in California
Summary: To accurately assess how much pension obligations for current workers are going to cost, it is necessary to calculate average pensions for retirees who retired after 1999 when pension benefits were enhanced.
Because public safety employees represent about 15% of California’s total state and local government workforce , but an estimated 25% of the total pension costs , this study focuses on the average pensions for public safety employees.
Public safety retirees who retired after 1999 after working for the city of San Jose, Los Angeles, or the many state and local governments participating in CalPERS, if they worked 25 years or longer, collected pensions and retirement benefits in excess of $90,000 in the most recent fiscal year for which records were available.
Among the three pension systems analyzed, San Jose had the most generous pensions; retired police and fire personnel who retired in the last 10 years, and who worked at least 25 years, earned an average base pension of $100,175 in 2012. Added to this was employer paid health insurance of worth about $10,000 per year.
In Los Angeles, factoring in the value of the employer provided health insurance, the average post-1999 retiree with 30+ years of service collects a pension and benefit package in excess of $100,000.
In addition to pension and health insurance benefits, Los Angeles, San Diego, and other California cities offer their public safety retirees the “DROP” program, which enables qualifying participants to collect a lump sum payout upon retirement that – at least in Los Angeles – is so substantial it increases the average pension amount of all retirees by over $50,000, despite only being received by less than 3% of LAFFP members during the 2013 year.
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The topic of public sector pensions quite rightly emphasizes the issue of financial sustainability, given the inherent long term nature of pension benefits. Typically these discussions center on a pensions system’s “funding ratio,” which represents the percentage of the fund’s liabilities that are offset by the value of their assets. A funding ratio of 100% means that a pension fund’s total assets equal their liabilities, that is, the assets are equal to the present value of the estimated future payment obligations to retirees. Any funding ratio below 80% calls into question the eventual solvency of a pension fund, and according to the American Academy of actuaries, even an 80% funding ratio should not be considered adequate.
Debates over whether or not California’s public sector pension funds are solvent quickly boil down to debates over fundamental assumptions regarding future events, that, depending on how optimistic or pessimistic they are, can have exponential consequences.
Perhaps the most consequential of these projections is the assumed rate of investment return the fund expects to achieve, as most pension funds rely on investment returns to generate a substantial amount of their funding. Another key projection necessary for the fund’s long term fiscal solvency pertains to the expected average amount of time a retiree is eligible to receive their benefits.
Consequently, the fund must correctly forecast the expected age at which participants will retire and how long they will live. Understanding the effects caused by changes in these forecasts is crucial for anyone managing pensions, regulating them, or advocating a set of reforms.
Along with assumptions regarding future events, the solvency of public sector pensions have been affected by so-called “pension holidays” taken in the past, which refers to those years when the participating employers did not make their full contributions. Often these regular contributions were missed because the pension funds themselves waived the requirement during years when the investment markets were delivering excellent returns.
The solvency of pensions is also affected whenever benefit formulas are increased. In California, starting in 1999 with the passage of SB 400, pensions for virtually all public workers were increased by approximately 50%.
This benefit enhancement necessitated higher annual contributions by the employer, but in most cases the amount of additional cost presented to the employers by the pension funds was underestimated, because of optimistic rate-of-return expectations for the funds. So optimistic, in fact, that most all of the benefit enhancements implemented starting around 1999 were awarded retroactively. Needless to say, applying a 50% pension enhancement to an employee’s entire career – even for those employees about to retire – exacerbated whatever unfunded challenges may have existed anyway in the pension funds.
The purpose of this study isn’t to delve further into the causes or potential remedies for the financial challenges facing California’s public sector pension funds. But at a time when virtually every public sector pension system in California is increasing required employer contributions in order to preserve solvency, year after year, with no end in sight, it is relevant to report as comprehensively as possible on just how much current retirees are receiving in retirement pensions and benefits.
To that end, the California Policy Center, in partnership with the Nevada Policy Research Institute, has acquired data directly from dozens of public sector pension funds in California, including CalPERS, CalSTRS, and about 25 other independent California-based pension systems. This information is available to the public at the website TransparentCalifornia.com.
Using this data, it is possible to construct an accurate and detailed look at what pension funds are paying current retirees. In this study, the focus is on public safety pensions, using recent data acquired from the California Public Employee Retirement System (CalPERS), the Los Angeles Fire and Police Pension system, and the City of San Jose Police and Fire Department’s Retirement Plan.
One important observation stand out: Public sector pensions are not applied equally in California. As will be shown, retirees who left state or local government service after 1999 are collecting far larger pensions than those retiring before the late 1999.
Additionally, retirees with less than 20 years of service credit are collecting pensions that are disproportionately smaller than those with 25 years or more. Also, the so-called “base pension” paid retirees can be quite misleading. As we will show, public safety officers receive benefits and supplemental payments that result in much greater total benefits than the base pension amount indicates. Most pension plans offer health insurance coverage of significant value, supplemental payments, annuities, or payments associated with DROP (deferred retirement option plan) that are not reflected in the base pension amount.
Understanding the real value of the pension benefits a full-career safety officer can expect to receive in retirement is critical to addressing the issue of whether or pension benefits might be equitably reduced as part of a comprehensive plan for pension reform.
If pension fund contributions are becoming such a burden on city and county budgets that they have the potential to throw these public employers into bankruptcy, then either in negotiations to avoid bankruptcy, or through a bankruptcy, one way to restore the solvency and reduce the financial demands of a pension fund is to lower the amount retirees receive as a benefit. The more participants are affected by benefit cuts, the more modest the effect these cuts may have on any specific individual.
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METHOD AND ASSUMPTIONS
The focus of this study is public safety pensions, which are typically calculated using a “3% at 50” or “3% at 55” formula. The formula works as follows: “3% is multiplied by the number of years worked, times final salary.” Sometimes the pensionable salary is simply the final salary of the employee at time of retirement. It can also be formulated as an average of the final three years of salary.
In some cases, pensionable salary may still include the value, or a percentage of the value, of, for example, unused sick time that is cashed in at the time of retirement. Many of these so-called “spiking” tactics were deemed abusive of the system and eliminated with the passage of SB 400 in 2012. In any case, public safety retirees, on average, collect the largest pensions of any class of state or local government employees in California. According to the U.S. Census Bureau, active police, firefighters and corrections officers represent about 15% of California’s approximately 1.5 million full-time state and local government employees.
In order to provide information on average public safety pensions that can provide insight into what currently active employees will be collecting, it is important to evaluate how much average pensions and benefits are for retirees who worked full careers and who retired in recent years. It is essential to break this information out separately from more general averages that include retirees who left service decades ago, because the pension formulas currently in effect for nearly all active personnel are the same as the ones used to calculate recent retiree pensions. To-date, pension reforms have only affected the benefit formulas earned by new employees, not existing employees. This means that any savings gained from pension reforms to-date will not be realized for 20 years or more.
Similarly, it is important to show pension benefits for employees who worked full careers, since this, again, is the only way to help foster accurate insight into how much pensions cost. Because these vital positions must be permanently filled, for every retiree who only worked a few years, earning a proportionately smaller pension, there must be additional hires who will also be collecting a partial pension. For this reason, normalizing pensions to “full-career equivalents” is necessary.
In order to highlight the effects of legislative actions such as SB 400 that retroactively enhanced pension benefits, as well as the disproportionally greater benefits of those who have accrued a full-career of service credit, the tables used in this study provide data that breaks out averages accordingly.
These tables, while intricate, follow a uniform format throughout the study:
– The vertical axis is the amount of the annual pension benefit. In all cases, the bars of data refer to average pensions received in their plan’s respective reporting year, including participants who retired decades ago. For CalPERS the data analyzed is the most recent available, calendar year 2012. For San Jose the data is from the 2013 fiscal year. Finally, the data from the LAFPP is for the 2013 calendar year.
– The horizontal axis has six blocks of data. Each block represents a five year range of retirement years, starting with 1984-1988, and proceeding in five year increments to the three columns on the far right, representing participants who retired in the years 2009-2013. Each of these sets of data have three vertical bars, representing participants who worked 20-25 years, 25-30 years, and over 30 years.
Finally, it is necessary to include benefits in addition to pensions in order to get a truly accurate impression of how much retired public safety employees in California receive in retirement benefits each year. Unfortunately, among the three pension systems being analyzed, only the Los Angeles Fire and Police Pension system provided this data. But while not disclosed elsewhere, they are present in virtually all retirement benefit plans for public safety retirees in California.
These benefits primarily include two types of compensation in addition to base pensions – they are payments towards health insurance and “Medigap” coverage or supplemental coverage to Medicare. In addition to health benefits, many safety officer plans offer supplemental pension benefits in the form of quarterly or annual payments in addition to their monthly benefit amount.
The LAFPP and other local safety pension plans such as the San Diego City Employees Retirement System (SDCERS) offer one of the most substantial forms of these additional benefits through a program known as a deferred retirement option plan, also known as DROP. In aggregate these distinctions are not relevant. However, the inclusions of these benefits are vital to any comprehensive analysis that wishes to accurately represent the true value of these benefits.
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PUBLIC SAFETY PENSIONS – CalPERS
Of the 483,902 individual retiree records provided by CalPERS, 48,863 were designated as “Public Safety” participants who retired between 1984 and 2013 with 20 years or more of service. Public safety retirees participating in CalPERS include California Highway Patrol, Correctional Officers, as well as police and fire department personnel from throughout the State of California that do not have, or are not members of, a local plan such as the LAFFP or San Jose plan.
The table below only shows base pension as that was the only data made available by CalPERS for the 2012 year. Naturally, any additional supplemental payments as well as health benefits received will increase these values.
There are six blocks of data, corresponding to year of retirement ranging from those who retired in 1984-1988 on the far left, to recent entrants on the right who retired in 2009-2013. In all cases, the amounts reported are the average pension paid last year. As can be seen, the amounts go up every year, that is, the more recently a participant retired, the bigger their pension. This is clearly the result of pension benefit enhancements that rolled through virtually all state and local government agencies – retroactively – starting in 1999.
As can also be seen from the six blocks of data, the longer a participant worked, the higher their pension. For example, participants who retired in 2009-2013 are depicted in three bars. Those who worked 20-25 years are shown in the lightest bar on the left side of the block; their average pension is $55,861 per year. In the medium shaded bar in the middle are those who retired after 25-30 years of service; their average pension is $82,926 per year. In the dark shaded bar on the right are those who retired after 30 years or more of service; their average pension is $99,908 per year.
CalPERS Safety Officers
Average Base Pension by Years of Service and Year of Retirement
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PUBLIC SAFETY PENSIONS – SAN JOSE
The San Jose Police and Fire Retirement Plan reported 1,953 individuals receiving a pension benefit for the 2013 fiscal year; the data analyzed here are for the 1,571 participants who retired between 1984 and 2013 with 20 years or more of service.
The table below only shows base pension because the San Jose Police and Fire Retirement Plan did not release information on health benefits or any other potential supplemental benefits. Again, there are six blocks of data, corresponding to year of retirement ranging from those who retired in 1984-1988 on the far left, to recent entrants on the right who retired in 2009-2013. In all cases, the amounts reported are the average pension paid last year. Also as seen with the CalPERS data, the amounts go up every year, that is, the more recently a participant retired, the bigger their pension, and the longer a participant worked, the higher their pension.
The differences shown between retirees before and after 1999 are striking. Almost all retirees post 1999 who have 25 years of experience or more are collecting pensions in excess of $100,000 per year, with the sole exception of retirees between 1999-2003 with 25-30 years experience who collected, on average, a pension of $90,108 in fiscal year 2013.
City of San Jose Safety Officers
Average Base Pension by Years of Service and Year of Retirement
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PUBLIC SAFETY PENSIONS – LOS ANGELES
The Los Angeles Fire and Police Employees’ Pension plan reported 10,040 individuals receiving a pension benefit for 2013 ; the data analyzed here are for the 8,717 participants who retired between 1984 and 2013 with 20 years or more of service.
The table below only shows base pension, even though the LAFPP has provided benefits and DROP data that will be summarized in the table following this one. Again, there are six blocks of data, corresponding to year of retirement ranging from those who retired in 1984-1988 on the far left, to recent entrants on the right who retired in 2009-2013. In all cases, the amounts reported are the average pension paid last year. Also as already seen, the amounts go up for post-1999 retirees, although the variation isn’t nearly as striking with the LAFPP data compared with the CalSTRS and San Jose data.
City of Los Angeles Safety Officers
Average Base Pension by Years of Service and Year of Retirement
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TOTAL RETIREMENT BENEFITS – LOS ANGELES
The next table provides a more complete picture of public safety retirement benefits because it includes the amount of employer provided health insurance, which adds approximately another $10,000 to the actual retirement compensation received by LA Police and Fire retirees. As can be seen, when including the value of the employer provided health insurance, the average post-1999 retiree with 30 years of service collects a pensions and benefit package in excess of $100,000.
What the complete data from Los Angeles reveals is an additional program of astonishing value, referred to as “DROP,” which stands for “Deferred Retirement Option Plan.” Conceived as a method to retain skilled public safety personnel who would otherwise be eligible to retire, the DROP program permits the participant to “retire” but continue to work. During the time they continue to work, they collect their normal pay, but the amount they would have been collecting as a pension is deposited in an account bearing 5% interest. They no longer accrue pension benefits. The potential savings of this program – similar in rationale to pension obligation bonds – is that the pension fund returns during the same period will exceed 5% earnings guaranteed the pensioner. In practice the DROP program results in very large final year payouts to retirees in their first year of retirement – enough to skew the average annual total retirement payouts per retirees with 25+ years of experience over the past 10 years to over $150,000.
Due to the incomplete data received from many – if not most – of California’s pension systems to-date, it isn’t clear how many agencies offer DROP to their public safety personnel. It is apparently not offered in San Jose, but definitely is offered in San Diego. It isn’t clear whether or not some of the many cities and counties who participate in CalPERS offer DROP to their public safety retirees. But the DROP program is a striking example of how reports that only reference base pensions are not representative of what total retirement benefits often will include. Another example of this, not strictly a retirement benefit, but nonetheless a sum paid upon retirement, is the common practice of cashing out accrued sick and vacation time, something which can and often does add tens, if not hundreds of thousands of dollars to a public employee’s final year of compensation.
City of Los Angeles Safety Officers
Average Total Retirement Benefits by Years of Service and Year of Retirement
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In recognition of the specialized skills required, and in order to attract and retain a workforce of the highest quality, it is certainly appropriate to pay a premium to active and retired public safety employees. But in the face of ballooning costs to California’s taxpayers to maintain pension solvency, it is also appropriate that anyone involved in discussions regarding reform be aware of just how much public safety officers currently receive in total retirement benefits. Here are some highlights:
- CalPERS, with the largest and hence probably the most representative dataset, reports base pensions to average $99,908 for public safety officers retiring in the last five years with 30+ years experience; for retirees with 25-30 years experience, the average base pension was $82,926 if they retired in the last five years.
- CalPERS retirees make far more if they retired after 1999, regardless of years of experience, because of the pension benefit enhancements that were awarded – retroactively – starting in that year. For all public safety participants retiring before 1999 with at least 20 years service, the average base pension is $52,179; for all participants retiring in 1999 or later, with at least 20 years service, the average base pension is $77,878.
- When including the value of other benefits, primarily employer paid health insurance, the estimated value of the average CalPERS public safety retirement compensation increases by about $10,000 per year.
- San Jose’s retired police and fire personnel who retired in the last 10 years, and who worked at least 25 years, earned an average base pension of $100,175 in 2012. Add to this at least the average value of employer paid health insurance of about $10,000 per year.
- While Los Angeles does not report their public safety retiree pension benefits, on average, as generous as CalPERS or San Jose, when including the value of the employer provided health insurance, the average post-1999 retiree with 30+ years of service collects a pension and benefit package in excess of $100,000.
- Los Angeles, San Diego, and other cities offer the “DROP” program, which in practice enables retirees to leave public service with a lump sum payout that – at least in Los Angeles – is substantial enough to increase the average pension amount by over $50,000 per participant.
To speculate as to whether or not this level of pay and benefits in retirement is appropriate or fair, even for former public safety personnel, is well beyond the scope of this study. But it should be observed that employer pension contributions in San Jose, for example, are on track to consume 25% of that city’s entire general fund within a few years. And yet efforts are currently in progress to repeal portions of San Jose’s pension reform measure. Similarly, in Los Angeles, pension costs jumped to 18% of the budget in 2012-13.
Another question that should be asked is why public safety employees are incentivized to retire after 25 or 30 years. While it is probably not wise to require officers in their 50’s or 60’s to occupy front-line roles in fighting crime or fighting fires, these veteran officers possess a great deal of experience that would be of significant value to their departments. Skilled officers can participate in training, management, administration, intelligence work, investigations, and logistical support – they might even oversee and operate the many automated systems such as micro drones that are inevitably going to become a vital resource for public safety agencies. There is no reason these individuals, with the skills they have acquired and talents they offer, to have to retire any earlier than anyone else.
In any case, the primary aim of this study was to put out accurate data regarding just how much public safety retirees in California receive in retirement pensions and other benefits. We have found that on average, a public safety retiree in California – working at least 25 years and retiring in the last ten years – earns a pension and benefit package in excess of $90,000 per year.
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(1) U.S. Census Bureau, California Local Government Payroll 2012, California State Government Payroll 2011
(2) Brown and Whitman duel over public pensions, Marin Independent Journal, October 12, 2010
(3) The 80% Pension Funding Standard Myth, American Academy of Actuaries, Issue Brief, July 2012
(4) State pension funds: what went wrong, Cal Pensions, January 10, 2011
(5) How California’s Public Pension System Broke, Reason Policy Brief, June 2010, page 5 “California Standard Pension Benefit Formulas Before and After SB 400”
(6) California pension rate hikes loom after Calpers vote, Reuters, February 18, 2014
(7) U.S. Census Bureau, California Local Government Payroll 2012, California State Government Payroll 2011
(8) The data provided on the TransparentCalifornia website for LAFPP pensions is for 2012. This study used 2013 data, also received from LAFPP, but not yet posted.
(9) Can San Jose cut pensions of current workers?, Cal Pensions, August 5, 2013
(10) Los Angeles City Pension Costs Grew 25% Annually Over Last Decade, Public CEO, March 6, 2013
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About the Authors:
Robert Fellner is a researcher at the Nevada Policy Research Institute (NPRI) and joined the Institute in December 2013. Robert is currently working on the largest privately funded state and local government payroll and pensions records project in California history, TransparentCalifornia, a joint venture of the California Policy Center and NPRI. Robert has lived in Las Vegas since 2005 when he moved to Nevada to become a professional poker player. Robert has had a remarkably successfully poker career including two top 10 World Series of Poker finishes. Additionally, his economic analysis on the minimum wage law won first place in a 2011 essay contest hosted by George Mason University.
Ed Ring is the executive director for the California Policy Center. Previously, as a consultant and full-time employee primarily for start-up companies in the Silicon Valley, Ring has done financial accounting for over 20 years, and brings this expertise to his analysis and commentary on issues of public sector finance. Ring has an MBA in Finance from the University of Southern California, and a BA in Political Science from UC Davis.