How Local Governments Can Reform Pensions IF the “California Rule” is Overturned

In December of 2018, the California Supreme Court will hear arguments in what is generally referred to as the Cal Fire pension case. The ruling could potentially overturn what is commonly referred to as the “California Rule.” The current interpretation of the rule is that pension benefits, once increased, cannot be reduced for existing employees even for future years of service without the agency providing a benefit of equal value to the employee.

What reforms would become possible if the Supreme Court rules that changes for future years of service are not protected by the California Rule?

To demonstrate how this ruling could be a game changer and open the door to pension reform for nearly every city and county in California, this article uses the potential savings for various reform options for the County of Sonoma.

It should be noted that any changes to the pension system if there is a favorable ruling by the court would need to be made by the governing body of each agency and if they refuse to act, could also be made by the taxpayers through the voter initiative process.

Current Situation in Sonoma County

The pension system for Sonoma County employees was founded in 1945 and up until 1993 was a sustainable and affordable system that paid career employees 2% per year of service. This would mean, for example, that after a 35 year career a retiree would collect a pension equal to 70% of their final base salary. Sonoma County employees are also eligible to receive Social Security benefits. Over the first 48 years until 1993, the pension system had accrued $355 million in total pension liabilities (money owed to retirees and earned to date by current employees).

But then, due to a series of illegal pension increases back to the date people were hired in 1998, 2003, 2004 and 2006, pensions for employees with only 30 years of employment jumped (including “spiking”) to 96% of their gross pay. After the first increase, the liability had doubled from the 1993 $355 million amount to $793 million in 1999. The liability doubled again in 9 years and hit $1.9 billion in 2009. Last year, in 2017 the pension liability reached $3.34 billion, a staggering 941% growth over 24 years.

The Growth of Sonoma County’s Pension Liability
$=Billions

To pay off the soaring liability, Sonoma County issued pension obligation bonds in 1994, 2003 and 2010 totaling $597 million dollars of principal. Paying off the bonds with interest will cost taxpayers $1.2 billion on top of their normal pension contributions. Currently, the County owes $650 million in principal and interest on the bonds that will cost them an average of $43 million per year until 2030.

In addition, the County’s contribution to the pension system (including debt service on the pension obligation bonds) has grown from $8 million in 1998 to $117 million in 2017. In other words, we have a serious math problem on our hands. While tax revenues have been growing at 3% per year, pension and healthcare costs have grown by 19%. Something has to give. In Sonoma County we have two choices, do nothing and pay higher taxes for fewer services, or, if possible (depending on the outcome of the Supreme Court case), reform our pension system to make it more equitable for taxpayers and more secure for employees and retirees.

So far, money has been taken from our roads and infrastructure maintenance budgets and the County has borrowed $597 million to pay for pensions. Soon, more and more money is going to come from cuts to fire and police protection, and services for those to in need. The retroactive pension increases not properly funded have essentially created a debt generation engine that sticks our children and grandchildren with enormous debt for services received in the past.

The Pension Increases May Have Been Illegal

In 2012 responding to a complaint I filed, the Sonoma County Civil Grand Jury could not find any evidence that the County followed the law when pensions were increased. The California Government Code in Section 7507 requires that the public be notified of the future annual cost of the increase. However, records show that all of the retroactive pension increases were enacted without determining the future annual costs and the public was never notified. This is a serious issue since public notification is the only protection taxpayers have. In addition, documents uncovered by New Sonoma indicate that the agreement was for the General employees to pay 100% of the past and future cost of the increase and Safety employees to pay 50% of the cost. This requirement was never enforced by the Sonoma County Retirement Association as it should have, so the vast majority of the costs for the benefit increases have been illegally borne by the County’s taxpayers.

These same increases were enacted at the state and local level from 1999 to 2008 for almost every public agency throughout the state. Cursory investigations of other cities conducted by the California Policy Center and Civil Grand Jury’s in Marin and Sutter county found similar violations at every agency investigated. A lawsuit is currently under appeal that would void illegal increases back to the date they were enacted which would in Sonoma County’s case save taxpayers $1.2 billion over the years ahead. But even if this case fails, other reform options may be available soon as a result of a favorable supreme court ruling. Here they are:

1. Cap the Employer Contribution

A lot of problems could be fixed at the governance level if employees felt the impact of growing unfunded liabilities. As long as the current situation of the employer/taxpayer covering 100% of the unfunded liability and debt service on the bonds exists, the problem will continue to grow and reforms will be minimal because all actuarial losses fall on the taxpayer.

Capping the employer contribution at 15% of salary (still 5 times what private sector employers contribute to retirement funds for their employees) would cut pension costs in Sonoma County from $117 million to $55.4 million, a savings to the county of $61.6 million per year. And as pension costs increase over the years ahead, the employees will pay all the costs associated with the growth.

2. Split All Pension Costs 50/50 Between the County and Employees

Currently the employer contribution is 19% of payroll. The current pension bond debt service, all paid for by the employer, is 11.3% of payroll. The current employee contribution is 11.6% of payroll. Therefore Sonoma County’s total pension costs in 2017 were 42% of payroll.

Capping employer contributions at 50% of pension costs or 21% of payroll would save the county $50 million per year, a cost that would be borne by employees in additional pension contributions.

3. Provide an Opt Out for Employees to a 401k Plan

Instead of forcing employees to contribute 21% of their take-home pay to their pension, a 401k option could be created.

Existing employees could be provided with the option of moving the present value of their future pension benefit into a 401k account and opting out of the defined benefit pension system. Going forward, the County could provide them with a 10% of base salary 401k contribution which the employee could match for a 20% contribution. Then, if the employee wanted to turn their account balance into a defined benefit for life, they could purchase an annuity upon retirement using their 401k funds.

Studies show young people entering the workforce prefer the portability of a 401k plan because they don’t see themselves in the same career their entire lives. Defined benefit pension funds also punish folks who leave the system early and highly reward those that stay because they are back loaded by design.

A lot of folks might also choose this option because they may be worried about the soundness of their pension plan, which in Sonoma County’s case, they should be.

4. Improve Pension Board Governance

Require a majority of non pension fund members on the Sonoma County Employee Retirement Association (SCERA) board or move the servicing of the fund, if possible to a private entity because of the conflicts of interest that exist when board members are also part of the pension system.

5. Establish Greater Transparency

Establish a COIN Ordinance to require the County Supervisors to hire an outside negotiator during contract negotiations and to provide the public with the cost impact of any changes to the citizens ahead of approval.

6. Mandate Public/Private Pay Equity

Require the County to perform a prevailing wage study and offer new County hires salaries that are similar to what Sonoma County residents earn in the private sector for work requiring comparable education and skills.

7. Return Spending Authority to Voters 

Require voter approval of any pension obligation bonds, and require voter approval of any increases to pension formulas or increases to salaries in excess of inflation.

6. Eliminate Conflicts of Interest

Do not allow elected officials to be members of the pension system due to the obvious conflict of interest.

7. Improve Public Oversight

Create a permanent Citizens Advisory Committee on Pensions that would provide an annual study of the pension system and track the success of pension reform efforts and provide recommendations to the Board of Supervisors. All reports prepared by the committee will be posted on the Committee’s webpage on the County’s website. The committee would have the power to perform accounting and regulatory compliance audits of the Sonoma County Retirement Association, investigate any evidence of illegal acts, and recommend appropriate remedies to the Board of Supervisors. A description of any violations and any committee recommendations will be posted on the Committee’s webpage on the County’s website.

 *   *   *

Ken Churchill has over 40 years of business and financial management experience as founder, CEO and CFO of a solar energy company and environmental consulting firm. In 2012 after discovering the county illegally increased pensions without the required public notification of the cost he founded New Sonoma, and organization of financial experts and citizens to investigate the increase and inform the public. Information on New Sonoma and their findings and court case can be found at www.newsonoma.org.