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The Pension Monster and How Much It’s Costing You to Keep It Fed

Why haven’t Mayor Eric Garcetti and City Council President Herb Wesson followed up on the recommendation by the LA 2020 Commission to “establish a Commission on Retirement Security to review the City’s retirement obligations in order to promote an accurate understanding of the facts” and make “concrete recommendations on how to achieve equilibrium on retirement costs by 2020?”

Why?  Because these two ambitious politicians fear alienating the campaign funding leaders of the City’s unions who do not want a public discussion of the facts surrounding the City’s ever increasing annual contributions to the City’s two massively underfunded pension plans that are forcing the City to scale back on basic services.

Over the last ten years, the City’s contribution to its two pension plans (Los Angeles City Employees Retirement System and the Los Angeles Fire and Police Pension System) has tripled to $1.1 billion, up from $350 million in 2005.  As a result, pension contributions now chew up 20% of the City’s $5.6 billion budget, up from less than 10% in 2005.

 

Are Mayor Eric Garcetti and City Council President Herb Wesson afraid of discussing with union leaders the prospect of LA’s growing unfunded liability?

 

This $750 million increase in pension contributions has forced the City to cut back on basic services such as public safety and the repair and maintenance of our streets, sidewalks, and parks.  The City has even resorted to placing an ill-conceived $1.2 billion bond measure on the November ballot to fund supportive housing for the homeless.

Unfortunately, it is only going to get worse as the City, its pension plans, and their fiscally irresponsible, Garcetti appointed Commissioners are banking on an overly optimistic rate of return of 7½% on the combined investment portfolio of $33 billion.

But the stock and bond markets are not cooperating as demonstrated by this year’s less than 1% return on CalPERS (California Public Employees’ Retirement System) $300 billion investment portfolio.

If the City’s pension funds earned this meager 1% as compared to the targeted 7½%, it would result in an investment shortfall of an estimated $2.7 billion, an amount equal to about half of the City’s annual budget.  This “loss” will increase the unfunded pension liability as of June 30, 2016 to almost $11 billion, representing a funded ratio of an unhealthy 74%.

However, if the investment rate assumption was a more reasonable 6½% as recommended by knowledgeable investors such as Berkshire Hathaway’s Warren Buffett, the unfunded pension liability would jump to over $16 billion, representing a dangerously low funded ratio of 66% and almost three times the City’s annual budget.

Over the next five years, the City’s two pension plans will rack up an additional shortfall of over $5 billion if the rate of return on their investment portfolios is 6½%, a much more likely outcome than the targeted return of 7½%.

But rather than recognizing this combined shortfall of $7.9 billion over the next five years, the City has cooked up a scheme to amortize these losses over a 20 year period, reducing the hit to the City’s budget.

Even with this scheme, the City’s pension contribution is expected to increase by more than 50% over the next five years to $1.7 billion, representing 27% of the City’s projected General Fund budget.

Garcetti and Wesson, along with Budget Committee Chair Paul Krekorian and Personnel Chair Paul Koretz, will tell us they made significant reforms to LAFPP in 2011 and LACERS in 2013 and 2015.  But these cosmetic amendments are nickels and dimes and did not address the overly optimistic investment rate assumption of 7½% and the unsustainable post-retirement medical benefits.

This pension time bomb is a weapon of mass financial destruction where we will burden the next generation of Angelenos with tens of billions of unsustainable debt. This will destroy their standard of living and their environment.

It is time for Garcetti, Wesson, and the members of the City Council to get off their fat asses, put on their big boy pants, and begin to address this problem by establishing an independent, well-funded Committee for Retirement Security.

Only then will we be able to begin the hard task of developing a solution where the City and its future will not be devoured by the pension monster.

Cross-posted at City Watch LA

About the Author: Jack Humphreville is a LA Watchdog writer for CityWatch, President of the DWP Advocacy Committee, Ratepayer Advocate for the Greater Wilshire Neighborhood Council, and Publisher of the Recycler

New Labor Agreement Projects to Widen Structural Deficit in Los Angeles

In August, the Los Angeles Times awarded Mayor Eric Garcetti a C for his performance during his first two years in office.  While Garcetti received a B+ on his Vision, his overall ranking was dinged by a C- on Leadership and D on Political Courage.

Unfortunately for all Angelenos, the “smooth on the podium” Garcetti has not shown leadership or political courage when addressing our cash strapped City’s budget, its lunar cratered streets, its massive $15 billion in unfunded pension liability, and its antiquated management information systems.

One of the major financial goals of the City over the past decade has been to eliminate its Structural Deficit, where the growth in expenditures (primarily personnel costs – salaries, benefits, and pension contributions) exceeds the increase in tax revenues.  And of course, Garcetti pledged to eliminate the Structural Deficit as part of his Back to Basics program where the City would “live within its financial means.” 

But the political rhetoric is not consistent with reality as the City is now projecting a cumulative four year deficit in the range of $300 million, in large part because of a new labor agreement with the City’s civilian unions. This deal with the campaign funding management of the civilian unions turned a projected surplus of $68 million in 2020 into a deficit of $100 million, a negative swing of $168 million.

This $300 million cumulative deficit does not include any money for the City’s ambitious homeless initiative, the systematic repair of our lunar cratered streets, the proper funding its pension plans and management information systems, the “goal” of hiring of 5,000 new employees, or any new labor contracts for the City’s 32,000 employees.

 

Mayor Eric Garcetti pledged to eliminate LA’s structural deficit, but instead seems to be increasing it.

 

However, these deficits are very difficult to comprehend as projected revenues over Garcetti’s first eight years (July 1, 2013 to June 30, 2021) in office are anticipated to increase by 35%, or $1.6 billion.  This shows that our City has a spending addiction, a problem that the mayor has refused to address.

Garcetti’s lack of leadership and political courage was evident by the fact that he was missing in action when the LA 2020 Commission recommended two finance related reforms.  These reforms included the adoption of a three year budgeting cycle and the establishment of an Office of Transparency and Accountability to oversee our city’s precarious finances.

The LA 2020 Commission also suggested the formation of a Commission on Retirement Security to review, analyze, and make recommendations to stabilize our City’s seriously underfunded pension plans.  As it is, the financial demands of the City’s two pension plans threaten to devour our City’s future and burden the next two generations of Angelenos with tens of billions of obligations. But where was our Back to Basics mayor?

The Mayor has also failed to develop a comprehensive operational and financial plan to repair and maintain our streets, some of the worst in the nation.  At the same time, the City receives a kickback of over $200 million a year from the Metropolitan Transportation Authority to help maintain our streets and transportation systems.  Instead, our mayor is crowing about fixing 2,400 miles of streets a year.  But this pothole filling strategy is just a band aid that does not address our thousands of miles failed streets and neglected alleys.

Garcetti tell us that he wants LA to be the best run big City in America.  But this is not in the cards unless the City is willing to devote the significant resources to update City Hall’s antiquated management information systems with new enterprise software systems that are necessary to run complex organizations in this ever changing world.

Mayor Garcetti has been blessed by an improving economy that has resulted in a huge increase in revenues.  But he has squandered this opportunity to stabilize the City’s finances by failing to address the Structural Deficit, our failing infrastructure, our seriously underfunded pension plans, and our antiquated management information systems.

Mayor Garcetti has failed us and as a result, he has flunked Budget and Finance and deserves the failing grade of D.

About the Author: Jack Humphreville is a LA Watchdog writer for CityWatch, President of the DWP Advocacy Committee, Ratepayer Advocate for the Greater Wilshire Neighborhood Council, and Publisher of the Recycler