Posts

California Cities Facing Huge Pension Increases from CalPERS

In their most recent actuarial reports CalPERS for the first time provided pension cost estimates for the next 8 years, from 2015 to 2023.

How high are these costs going for California’s cities who retroactively increased their pensions at CalPERS urging over the past 15 years? To answer that question I looked at the largest city in my county, Santa Rosa and this is what I found.

Data Sources for this Report

The data used to develop the spreadsheet analysis done as part of this report are NOT numbers that I calculated. The past numbers for 2002 to 2015 are taken directly from the City of Santa Rosa’s Comprehensive Annual Financial Reports found on the City’s website (This page has the links to Santa Rosa’s CAFRs from 2001 through 2015. In each of these CAFRs, the pension information is found in the section entitled “Notes to Basic Financial Statements” under the heading “Employees Retirement Plan.”). The projected growth of certain costs – such as retiree healthcare benefits (also known as “other post employment benefits,” or OPEB), the payroll and sales and property tax revenues – use inflation rates or growth rates similar to what CalPERS uses.

The future pension costs were obtained directly from the 2013 and 2015 Actuarial Reports prepared by CalPERS and found on the CalPERS website. Since the future costs are based upon CalPERS achieving a 7.5% net rate of investment return, I believe their costs are understated, but I used them anyway. But since the pension plan has $804 million worth of assets if the pension fund returns 6.5%, in a single year it will add $8 million to the City’s pension debt and a 5% return would add $20 million.

Looking at the data going back 16 years what I found is that in 2000, Santa Rosa’s pension contribution was $1.8 million and the plan was 122% funded, meaning there were $1.22 worth of invested assets in the fund for every $1.00 worth of benefits earned.

With CalPERS wholehearted support and assistance, on August 6, 2002, the Santa Rosa City Council passed a board resolution to enact a new contract with CalPERS that changed formulas from 2% per year of service at 55 years of age for non-safety Miscellaneous employees to a 3% at 60 formula.  The new formula was provided prospectively, meaning it only applied to future years of service, not past years.

For Police and Fire employees, the new contract was adopted retroactively so it applied to past and future years of service. Their formula went from 2% per year of service at 55 years of age to 3% at 50. This represents a more than 50% increase in the benefit, since along with the “multiplier” increasing from 2% to 3%, the age of eligibility dropped from 55 to 50. But it was the retroactive granting of this benefit that caused even more significant financial liability. This is because the multiplier was increased by 50% even for years already worked and raised pensions from 60% of salary to 90% of salary for 30 years of service.

These changes ended up having a serious impact on the pension costs and the unfunded liability because CalPERS used an overly optimistic rate of investment return of 8.25% compounded per year in their cost analysis. Over the past 15 years since the increase, CalPERS has only achieved a 5% compound rate of return. Many experts believe in this current low interest rate environment returns will remain at the 5% return level for the foreseeable future.

In July of 2003 the City took on $53 million worth of new debt by selling Pension Obligation Bonds (POB) and giving the proceeds to CalPERS to pay down the unfunded liability that was created by the new formulas. With interest these bonds will divert over $100 million from government services to debt service.

CalPERS Flawed Cost Analysis and Lack of Proper Disclosure

CalPERS cost analysis provided to the City in 2002 stated the cost for the new 3% at 50 formula for Safety members would be 13.27% of salary and the cost for the 3% at 60 formula for Miscellaneous members would be 9.87% of salary. However, as previously stated, these estimates were calculated assuming that pension assets would grow at 8.25% per year into the future. Since CalPERS investments have only averaged 5% over the past 15 years the increases have created $287 million in unfunded pension liabilities for the City as of 2015.

In addition, the analysis did not provide the City with any warning or disclosure regarding what would happen if the 8.25% investment return was not achieved. CalPERS simply wrote “For many plans at CalPERS the financial soundness of the plan will not be jeopardized regardless of the new formula choice made by the employer.”

The Growth of Pension Costs Since the Increase

In 2001, the City’s pension contribution was $1.5 million and in the first 4 years following the increase it grew to $11.5 million. In addition, the funding ratio dropped from 122% in 2001 to 70% in 2005 meaning the fund, instead of $63 million in excess assets now had $128 million in unfunded liabilities.

In 2006, the annual cost grew by another $5 million hitting $16.6 million and by 2015 had grown to $21 million. However, this was a very modest growth considering CalPERS lost 29% of its assets during the Great Recession in 2008 and 2009. CalPERS lowered contributions in order to help cities and counties who saw their tax revenues during the recession drop. So CalPERS extended the amortization period on the unfunded liabilities from 9 to 20 years and smoothed their investment gains and losses from 4 to 15 years into the future. Basically, these were accounting gimmicks that resulted in severe underfunding of the pension plan and these changes exist today. The chart below shows the growth of Santa Rosa public employee retirement costs (click here to see the underlying calculations).

Santa Rosa Retirement Cost Growth

However, now CalPERS is worried that the plans are not being properly funded and pension contributions need to be doubled over the next 9 years.

Projected Future Costs

In their 2015 actuarial reports, CalPERS provided the City with their normal employer contribution as a percentage of payroll and the unfunded actuarial liability (UAL) as a total cost each year from 2015 to 2023. Using a 3% payroll growth assumption and their UAL numbers, I calculated the annual costs going forward. In addition, I added the pension obligation bond debt service each year going forward along with the cost of retiree healthcare benefits using a 5% annual cost increase assumption as CalPERS does.

My analysis indicates that during the next 8 years, the cost for retiree benefits will increase from $31.0 million or 33.7% of payroll in 2015 to $59.1 million or 48% of payroll in 2023.

The nearly doubling of pension and retiree healthcare costs means the City will need to cut salaries, benefits, services and/or increase taxes each and every year going forward by $3.2 million per year to meet their retiree benefit costs.

Pension and Healthcare Costs as a Percentage of Tax Revenues

More important than pension costs as a percentage of payroll are pension costs as a percentage of tax revenues because tax revenues are what enables the City to pay for its benefits. Once retiree benefit costs exceed the City’s ability to pay them, they will no longer be able to be fully paid and at that point either they will need to be reduced in bankruptcy or through significant pension reductions. The chart below shows the growth of pension costs relative to that of general fund property tax and sales tax revenues.

churchill-2016-10-31-chart

The results of my analysis are staggering. Over the past 15 years’ sales and property tax revenues have climbed an average of 3% per year, while employee retirement costs have increased an average of 19% per year. This has led to a growth of retiree benefit costs from 3.5% of major tax revenues in 2001 to 47% in 2015 and an estimated growth to 70% of major tax revenues by 2023 (Editor’s note:  the city receives other revenues which may also be available to finance pension costs).

Growth of the Unfunded Liability

The unfunded liability of the pension plan is calculated by taking the assets in the plan minus the present value of the benefits already earned by current employees and retirees, considered the plan’s liability. The funding ratio is determined by dividing the market value of assets in the plan by the liability.

CalPERS discounts the long term liability by assuming before the money is paid to retirees, it will earn investment income. CalPERS currently uses an assumed 7.5% rate of investment return to calculate the liability and payments to the plan. So if the assumed investment return is lowered, the unfunded liability of the plan increases along with the cost of paying off the liability. Unfunded liability costs are borne by taxpayers and are not a shared expense with the employees.

Currently, using a 7.5% assumed rate of return, the pension fund has $287 million worth of unfunded liabilities and pension bond debt and is 74% funded. However, many experts believe in this low interest rate environment a lower investment return assumption should be used. Many experts think that a 5.5% to 6.5% rate should be used. Other experts believe a 3.5% rate should be used since this is about the rate private pension plans are required to use and what CalPERS uses if a City wanted to buy their way out of the CalPERS system. I won’t guess what the future investment returns will be, but here is what happens to the unfunded liability at various rates of investment return assumptions:

  • At 6.5% the unfunded liability would increase to $426 million and $50 million per year to would be added to the City’s pension costs.
  • At 5.5% the unfunded liability would increase to $585 million and $97 million per year would be added to the City’s pension costs.
  • At 4.5% the unfunded liability would increase to $755 million and $137 million per year would be added to the City’s pension costs.
  • At 3.5% the unfunded liability would increase to $967 million and $187 million per year would be added to the City’s pension cost.

Santa Rosa Analysis of Unfunded Liability at Various Rates of Investment Return

20161028-cpc-churchill1

City Pension Plan Status Using ERISA Standards

Under the Federal ERISA rules for private pensions, a high quality bond rate of return is used to determine the assumed rate of investment return. Today that is around 3.5%. ERISA also defines the health of a pension plan as follows:

  • Less than 80% funded is considered “seriously endangered”
  • Less than 70% funded is considered “at risk”
  • Less than 65% funded is considered “critical status”

So under ERISA standards, the City of Santa Rosa’s pension plan at 45% funded when assuming a 3.5% return is 20 percentage points below what ERISA would consider “critical status”. So one could more accurately describe the pension system as being on “life support”.  Also, under ERISA rules the pension benefits each year would stop being accrued until the plan becomes 60% funded to keep the hole from going deeper.

ERISA also requires the plan sponsor pay off their unfunded liabilities over 7 years. CalPERS currently allows public agencies to pay off their liability over up to 30 years. If the City was required to pay off its unfunded liability over the next 7 years, their annual contribution to the pension fund would grow from $28 million to $146 million in 2015 alone. So under ERISA rules pension costs would increase by $120 million per year and take them to 145% of payroll.

Conclusion

The City of Santa Rosa and all cities in California who retroactively increased pensions need to restructure their pension systems. Otherwise it is increasingly unlikely they will be able to afford the benefits that have already been earned and provide taxpayers with the services they deserve for their tax dollars.

City officials can no longer pretend a crisis does not exist. They would be well advised to form a Pension Advisory Committee and bring all the stakeholders to the table to look at all the options, have an actuary determine the savings for each option and make informed decisions to save the pension plan and benefits people are counting on to fund their retirement.

 *   *   *

About the author:  Ken Churchill is the author of numerous studies on the pension crisis in California and is also the Director of New Sonoma, an organization of financial experts and citizens concerned about Sonoma County’s finances and governance.

REFERENCES AND RELATED ARTICLES

California Court Ruling Allows Pension Changes, August 26, 2016

How CalPERS has Created a Ticking Time Bomb, November 30, 2015

The Devastating Impact of Retroactive Pension Increases in California, April 27, 2015

Evaluating Total Unfunded Public Employee Retirement Liabilities in 20 California Counties, May 6, 2014

Sonoma County’s Pension Crisis – Analysis and Recommendations, January 12, 2014

The Sonoma County Retroactive Pension Increase: Gross Incompetence or Billion Dollar Scam?, April 15, 2012

How Retroactive Benefit Increases and Lower Returns Blew Up Sonoma County’s Pensions, April 5, 2012

 

Michigan Court: Reduce Pensions or Reduce Retirement Health Benefits

Editor’s Note: Notwithstanding recent court challenges that could go either way, one way to negotiate meaningful steps towards financially sustainable defined benefit pensions, i.e., reductions or suspensions of COLAs, prospective reductions in the multiplier, increased employee contributions towards the unfunded liability and not just towards the normal contribution, etc., is to offer to reduce OPEB (other post employment benefits) instead. From Detroit to Stockton, this option has been part of the discussion. The scale of OPEB liabilities are comparable to unfunded pension liabilities, in some cases, they actually exceed unfunded pension liabilities. But in general, cities, counties and states can exercise more discretion with OPEB commitments when their agencies face severe financial stress than they can with pensions. Leverage is scarce in the world of pension reform, and OPEB is being used. In this article, author Mike Shedlock reports on how this is playing out in Michigan and Illinois – something to be watched closely in California.

Illinois state pension and retirement plans are in dire straits. The only way to fix the problems is with plan changes.

Michigan did that in 2012. And in a 6-0 decision yesterday, the Detroit Free Press reported the Michigan Supreme Court, rejected arguments from unions, and upheld the 2012 state law requiring teachers to put more of their pay toward their pension plans or face cuts to benefits.

The Michigan Supreme Court, rejecting arguments from unions, has upheld a 2012 state law requiring teachers and other school employees to put more of their pay toward their pension plans or face cuts to benefits such as post-retirement health care.

The law, backed by Gov. Rick Snyder and the Republican-controlled Legislature, was intended to cut an estimated $45-billion unfunded liability in the Michigan Public School Employees Retirement System by more than $15 billion.

The American Federation of Teachers and the Michigan Education Association unions argued the law impaired contracts and amounted to uncompensated takings of pension benefits.

But both the Michigan Supreme Court and the appeals court said the law doesn’t violate a Michigan constitutional provision protecting earned pension benefits, because only future benefits are affected. Also, unlike an earlier law that mandated 3% contributions toward health care, the 2012 law provides an opt-out provision, the court said.

Good News For Illinois

What passes constitutional muster in Michigan may not do so in Illinois, but the unanimous ruling provides a model for what may work elsewhere. This is good news for all cash-strapped states.

In Illinois, Gov. Bruce Rauner Wants Changes to Insurance Programs for State Workers, Retirees.

Health insurance for active state workers and retirees is being targeted for big savings in Gov. Bruce Rauner’s budget plan.

“By bringing health care benefits more in line with those received by the taxpayers who pay for them, we save an additional $700 million,” Rauner said Wednesday in his budget speech.

His budget also calls for an end to state subsidies to the health insurance programs for retired downstate teachers and community college workers.

Right Path

Governor Rauner is on the right path. Benefits must be cut. For starters, Illinois needs to move all employees going forward into 401K type plans. Next, Illinois needs to address spiraling costs for those in defined benefit plans.

Michigan passed one law the Michigan Supreme Court rejected, and a second one in 2012 law that was upheld unanimously. Illinois would be wise to pursue changes that are likely to be upheld in court. We now have at least one model that works.

For more on problems in Illinois and what to do about them, please see …

Illinois desperately needs to address the root of its fiscal problems: untenable pension benefits and promises.

Massive proposed tax hikes are not the answer. Tax hikes will do nothing but make already uncompetitive Illinois even more uncompetitive.

About the Author:  Mike Shedlock is the editor of the top-rated global economics blog Mish’s Global Economic Trend Analysis, offering insightful commentary every day of the week. He is also a contributing “professor” on Minyanville, a community site focused on economic and financial education, and a senior fellow with the Illinois Policy Institute.

Evaluating Total Unfunded Public Employee Retirement Liabilities in 20 California Counties

Summary:  Using officially reported figures from the most recent financial statements available, this report calculates the total unfunded employee retirement liabilities for the 20 California counties with their own independent retirement systems. This study is the first of its kind to compile for these counties not only reported pension fund assets and liabilities, but also retirement health care assets, if any, and their corresponding liabilities, as well as the outstanding balances for any pension obligation bonds.

This composite data, reported for each county both as a funding ratio and as a numerical value for the net liability, incorporates all assets and liabilities associated with retirement obligations to public employees. To-date, most reports focus on the unfunded pension liability, ignoring the amount of the unfunded healthcare liability and the outstanding balance owed on pension obligation bonds. But these other liabilities are of comparable value, and are offset with far fewer invested assets, if any. For taxpayers and policymakers to properly understand and cope with the financial challenges facing their counties, this information is vital.

As it is, these 20 counties combined have a population of 29.3 million, constituting 77% of Californians. Their total unfunded pension liability, based on their most recent financials, is $37.2 billion. Their total unfunded retirement liabilities, also based on officially reported amounts in their most recent financial statements, but also including pension obligations bonds and unfunded healthcare liabilities, is $72.3 billion. As a percentage, their total funded ratio just for pensions (assets as a percent of liabilities) is 74%. Their total retirement funding percentage, taking into account pensions, healthcare, and pension obligation bonds, is only 60%.

This total obligation, $7,369 per household vs. $3,932 if you only include pension funds, is a daunting amount. But it is based on official rates of return of 7.5%, which as explained further in this study, if not attained, will result in far higher calculations of underfunding for pensions – at a 5.5% discount rate, for example, the funded ratio for these 20 counties drops to 49%. And, of course, it only represents the costs for county workers – within these counties, taxpayers are also responsible for the unfunded pension and healthcare liabilities – and retirement related bond debt – for those working for the local cities, as well as all workers within their counties who are employed by public schools, local colleges and universities, other public agencies, and the state.

*   *   *

INTRODUCTION

The concept of “total compensation” has become increasingly recognized as the only accurate way to assess whether or not public employee compensation is either affordable or equitable. Instead of just reporting base pay, total compensation calculations look at all types of direct pay including “credential pay,” “specialty pay,” “bilingual pay,” “advanced degree pay,” “tuition reimbursement,” etc., along with overtime pay, and along with the costs for all employer paid benefits including current health insurance coverage. “Total compensation” calculations also include current year contributions made by an employer towards an employee’s retirement benefits – namely, health insurance and pensions.

“Total compensation,” as it turns out, often exceeds “base pay” by a factor of 100% to 200%.

Discussions of unfunded liabilities for retirement benefits must undergo a similar examination. To-date, the primary topic of debates and discussion over the size of unfunded liabilities regards pensions, and on what discount rate to use to calculate the present value of the employer’s future retirement pension obligations.

This debate is ongoing and of critical importance – to use very rough numbers, each 1.0% drop in the projected rate-of-return for a typical pension fund can increase the required annual contribution by roughly 10% of payroll. Similarly, using very rough numbers, as documented in a February 2013 CPC study entitled “How Lower Earnings Will Impact California’s Total Unfunded Pension Liability” – using formulas provided by Moody’s Investors Services for this purpose, and data provided by the California State Controller. Bearing in mind that a relatively small change to the total liability may result in a very large change to the net unfunded liability – here is the impact of changes to the projected rate of return on the total unfunded liability for all of California’s public employee pension systems combined using annual report data from 6-30-2012:

Official total unfunded pension liability at assumed rate-of-return of 7.5% = $128 billion.

Official total unfunded pension liability at assumed rate-of-return of 6.2% = $252 billion.

Official total unfunded pension liability at assumed rate-of-return of 5.5% = $329 billion.

Official total unfunded pension liability at assumed rate-of-return of 4.5% = $450 billion.

*   *   *

TOTAL UNFUNDED PUBLIC EMPLOYEE RETIREMENT LIABILITY

The purpose of this study is not to present the consequences of lower rates of return, but instead to calculate – using the officially recognized composite rate of return of 7.5% – what the total unfunded public employee retirement liability is, using information provided by independent pension systems serving select California counties. There are 20 counties that administer their own independent pension systems under the “County Employee Retirement Law;” this study draws on information provided in the Consolidated Annual Financial Reports for these counties, as well as in the County Employee Retirement Systems annual Actuarial Valuation reports.

Using official numbers has the virtue of being relatively beyond debate – when using the official projections, the only question anyone should be asking is how much higher these numbers may be using lower estimated rates-of-return. But total public unfunded employee retirement liabilities do not just include unfunded pension liabilities, they also include unfunded retirement health insurance liabilities – the so-called “OPEB” (Other Post-Employment Benefits). Total unfunded public employee retirement obligations must also include the outstanding balances on Pension Obligation Bonds – balance sheet debt, usually long-term that was entered into by cities and counties in order to raise cash to make their required employer pension contributions to their pension funds.

By combining all three sources of liability for retirement obligations, a far more accurate picture of just how much taxpayers owe – even at the official rate-of-return projections which may turn out to be far too optimistic. By matching these liabilities against the assets on hand – pension fund assets and in some cases OPEB fund assets – the next table shows the true “unfunded” ratio for the 20 CERL counties.

Table 1 – Total Unfunded Retirement Liability per CERL Counties ($=Millions)

20140506_Churchill-Monnett_1

Showing this number adds a sobering perspective to the discussion of unfunded retirement liabilities. The counties on the above table are ranked with those counties having the worst funded ratios appearing first. As can be seen, there is a wide variation between the worst, Merced, where less than half the necessary amount to fund already earned pension and retirement healthcare benefits has actually been set aside, and Tulare, which is has a healthy 87% funded ratio.

It is important to emphasize that all these numbers reflect officially recognized liabilities. It would be instructive to provide data on just how much these unfunded liabilities will swell if any sort of projection is made based on lower rates of return. Here’s the formula that Moody’s Investor Services provided to revalue the present value of pension liabilities from the common 7.5% rate of return projection based on using a more conservative rate of 5.5%:

[ PV x ( 1 + official %i ) ^ years ] / ( 1 + adjusted %i ) ^ years  =  Adj PV

Here, plugging into the formula the official total pension liability for all 20 CERL counties of $143 billion, is how much it grows at the lower discount rate of 5.5%:

[ 143.2 x ( 1 + 7.5% ) ^ 13 ]  /  ( 1 + 5.5% ) ^ 13  =  182.8

Collectively, for the CERL counties, using this formula to apply the more conservative discount rate of 5.5%, their estimated pension liabilities grow from $143.2 billion to $182.8 billion, which means their estimated funded ratio for pensions (not including pension obligation bonds) drops from 74% to 58%. Put another way, since the unfunded pension liability is equal to the total assets less the estimated pension liabilities, by using the more conservative discount rate of 5.5%, they more than double, from $37.3 billion to $76.8 billion. The 20 CERL pension systems have had similar earnings rate during this period. The potential for surprises like this should not be lightly dismissed. In spite of recently reported good results, note that 5.5% is in fact the cumulative investment rate of return earned by CalPERS during the 13 years from 2001 to 2013.

[Note: This recent CPC study “A Method to Estimate the Pension Contribution and Pension Liability for Your City or County,” provides a tutorial, including a downloadable spreadsheet, explaining how use Moody’s pension analysis formulas to analyze any typical public sector pension fund.] 

*   *   *

PAYING DOWN THE TOTAL UNFUNDED RETIREMENT LIABILITY

Another way to explain the significance of the total unfunded retirement liability would be to describe what repayments would be based on the goal to achieve 100% funded status in 20 years. The next table shows these payments as a percent of their respective county budgets, using 2012 budget data compiled from publicly available information by the website PublicSectorCredit.org.

The order of the counties on this table are ranked with the worst counties, i.e., those with the highest payments on their unfunded liability as a percent of revenue listed first. Even though Los Angeles County has only the 2nd lowest unfunded liability, at 51%, 2nd to Merced County at 47%, Los Angeles County’s unfunded liability as a percent of their annual budget is actually greater.

As shown in the 3rd column “Liability as Multiple of Revenue,” Los Angeles County’s officially recognized total retirement liability is 2.37 times their entire annual revenue. As a payment calculated to bring the county to 100% funding by 2034, they would have to make an unfunded “catch-up” payment each year equivalent to 23% of their annual revenue.

Table 2 – Unfunded Payment as Percent of Revenue per CERL Counties ($=Millions)

20140506_Churchill-Monnett_2b

As can be seen in the above table, these so-called “unfunded payments,” for which reforms to-date do not require public employees to bear any share of payment on via payroll withholding, will themselves consume a significant portion of the entire budget of many counties – if serious attempts are made to actually achieve 100% funding. And without 100% funding, the pool of invested assets is too small to prevent the unfunded liability from growing further even if rate-of-return projections are fulfilled. Here’s why:

In the projections shown on the above table, a 7.5% rate of interest is used – this rate represents the opportunity cost of not having 100% funding. For example, Ventura County has a funded ratio of nearly 80%, purportedly the threshold for a “healthy” fund. But because they are earning money on invested assets that only amount to 80% of the present value of their estimated retirement liabilities, if all they do is earn 7.5% in a given year, their unfunded liability will grow. Because to 7.5% earnings on a 100% funded plan is equivalent to 9.4% earnings on an 80% funded plan. And so it goes.

While the math behind all of this may only seem obvious to those who understand financial concepts and are proficient at algebra, the point of it all should be obvious to everyone: For the CERL counties to improve their funded ratio for their total retirement obligations, which collectively – using officially reported numbers – is already only 60%, they will have to make annual unfunded payments that will by themselves consume a significant portion of their budgets, in addition to the normal funding contributions for new benefits earned in any given year.

*   *   *

THE IMPACT OF THE TOTAL UNFUNDED RETIREMENT LIABILITY ON INDIVIDUAL TAXPAYERS

The next chart lists the number of households and the population of each of the 20 CERL counties, using estimated 2013 figures provided by the U.S. Census Bureau. The ranking again finds Los Angeles County at the top of the list. The officially recognized unfunded liability per household for Los Angeles County is a whopping $12,123; the payment per household to eliminate this unfunded liability by 2034 is $1,190 – one may reliably surmise that the payment per taxpaying household to be considerably higher. As noted already, this liability refers only to the county workers – every resident and taxpayer also carries the prorated burden of unfunded liabilities for the local and state government employees who work in their cities, their schools, and state agencies.

Table 3 – Unfunded Liability and Payment per Household per CERL Counties ($=Millions)

20140506_Churchill-Monnett_3

Properly calculating the entire unfunded retirement liability for California’s citizens, or performing what-if analysis based on what may happen to that liability if rate-of-return projections are lowered, was not the intention of this study, but bears a final point: As shown on Table 1, the total unfunded liability for all retirement obligations is only 60% funded using official discount rates. If the pension liability is revalued at the lower 5.5% discount rate, the estimated total retirement liability swells from $179 billion to $218 billion, the estimated unfunded liability grows from $72 billion to $112 billion, and the funded ratio drops from 60% to 49%.

The CERL counties, with their independent pension systems, provide an excellent means to distill the nature of the problem to very specific and easily documented numbers and calculations. The concept of total retirement obligations, incorporating not only unfunded pension liabilities, but also debt outstanding on pension obligation bonds, and unfunded retirement healthcare obligations, yields a far more ominous profile of financial ill health than merely focusing on pensions. But it is the only accurate way to assess the cost taxpayers truly face.

*   *   *

About the Authors:

Ken Churchill is the director of New Sonoma, an organization of financial and business experts and concerned citizens dedicated to working together to solve Sonoma County’s serious financial problems. 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. He sold both companies and now grows wine grapes and produces wines under his Churchill Cellars label. For the past three years, Churchill has been actively researching and studying the pension crisis and published a report titled The Sonoma County Pension Crisis – How Soaring Salaries, Retroactive Pension Increases and Poor Management Have Destroyed the County’s Finances. Churchill is currently running for supervisor, 4th district, in Sonoma County.

Bill Monnet is a board member of Citizens for Sustainable Pension Plans in Marin County.   He has an MA in Political Science from UC Davis and an MBA in Finance from UC Berkeley. Monnet was briefly an adjunct Professor of Public Administration and then spent 24 years in Silicon Valley in various management positions at IBM, Siemens and Cisco Systems. His work experience includes positions in finance, service & manufacturing operations, demand forecasting and failure analysis. He says that his varied experiences have proved surprisingly effective in understanding the counterintuitive world of public finance.

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.

*   *   *

FOOTNOTES

(source data for counties listed in alphabetical order)

Alameda County

Pension Assets and Liabilities:
Alameda County CAFR 6-30-2013, Liabilities and Actuarial Value of Assets see page 64.
http://www.acgov.org/auditor/financial/cafr12-13.pdf
Alameda Employee Retirement Association Actuarial Valuation Report for 12-31-2012, Market Value of Assets see page viii.
http://www.acera.org/post/actuarial-reports

Pension Obligation Bonds (balance as of 6-30-2013):
Alameda County CAFR 6-30-2013, Outstanding Long-Term Obligations, pages 17 & 56.
http://www.acgov.org/auditor/financial/cafr12-13.pdf

Retirement Healthcare Assets and Liabilities (actuarial valuation  as of 12-31-2012):
Alameda County CAFR 6-30-2013, Outstanding Long-Term Obligations, pages 67, 70.  Alameda County has 2 separate OPEB programs:  retiree medical benefits program and a COLA + death benefit program.  The assets & liabitlies reported here are for both programs.
http://www.acgov.org/auditor/financial/cafr12-13.pdf

Contra Costa County

Pension Assets and Liabilities:
Contra Costa County CAFR 6-30-2013, Actuarial Value of assets & liabilities page 95.
http://www.co.contra-costa.ca.us/DocumentCenter/View/28970
Contra Costa County Employee Retirement Association Actuarial Valuation 12-31-2012, Actuarial & Market value of assets page 5.
http://www.cccera.org/actuarial/Actuarial Val Report 2012.pdf

Pension Obligation Bonds (actuarial valuation as of 6-30-2013):
Contra Costa County CAFR 6-30-2013, 10. Long-Term Obligations, “Pension Bonds Payable,” page 80
http://www.co.contra-costa.ca.us/DocumentCenter/View/28970

Retirement Healthcare Assets and Liabilities (actuarial valuation as of 01-01-2012):
Contra Costa County CAFR 6-30-2013, Schedule of Funding Progress, Other Postemployment benefits “Actuarial Accrued Liability,” pages 98 and 106. Note the CAFR reports the value of OPEB Assets as $114,599 as of 06-30-2013 but does not report the corresponding liability on that date. In order to have a fair matching of assets with liabilities at the same point in time I have reported the 01-01-2012 numbers.
http://www.co.contra-costa.ca.us/DocumentCenter/View/28970 

Fresno County

Pension Assets and Liabilities:
Fresno County Employees Retirement Association Actuarial Valuation 6-30-2013 [actuary = Segal], page vi.
http://www2.co.fresno.ca.us/9200/Attachments/Agendas/2014/011514/Item 27 011514 Actuarial Valuation Report as of June 30 2013.pdf 

Pension Obligation Bonds (balance as of 6-30-2013):
Fresno County CAFR 6-30-2012, POBs outstanding page 117.
http://www2.co.fresno.ca.us/0410/CAFR/CAFR2013.pdf 

Retirement Healthcare Assets and Liabilities (actuarial valuation as of 6-30-2013):
No OPEB liabilities, assets or program is reported in the CAFR.

Imperial County

Pension Assets and Liabilities:
Imperial County Employees Retirement System Actuarial Valuation 6-30-2013, page v.

Pension Obligation Bonds (balance as of 6-30-2013):
Imperial County CAFR 6-30-2012, Note 8: Long Term Debt, page 41.
http://www.co.imperial.ca.us/Budget/GeneralPurposeFinancialStatements/2013Financials.pdf

Retirement Healthcare Assets and Liabilities (actuarial valuation as of 6-30-2013):
Imperial County CAFR 6-30-2012, Note 11: OPEB, page 46.
http://www.co.imperial.ca.us/Budget/GeneralPurposeFinancialStatements/2013Financials.pdf

Kern County
Pension Assets and Liabilities:
Kern County Employees Retirement Association Actuarial Valuation 6-30-2012, page vi.
http://www.kcera.org/pdf/Actuary/2012_valuation_report.pdf

Pension Obligation Bonds (balance as of 6-30-2013):
Kern County CAFR 6-30-2013, page 61.
http://www.co.kern.ca.us/auditor/cafr/13cafr.PDF

Retirement Healthcare Assets and Liabilities (actuarial valuation as of 6-30-2012):
Kern County CAFR 6-30-2013, page 107. This includes the liabilities for both the Retiree Health Premium Supplement Program and the Retiree Health Stipend.
http://www.co.kern.ca.us/auditor/cafr/13cafr.PDF 

Los Angeles County

Pension Assets and Liabilities:
Los Angeles County Employee Retirement Association Actuarial Valuation 6-30-13 [actuary = Milliman], page 11.
http://www.lacera.com/investments/inv_pdf/actuarial_valuation.pdf

Pension Obligation Bonds (balance as of 6-30-2013):
Los Angeles County CAFR 6-30-2013. No POBs are reported in the CAFR.

Retirement Healthcare Assets and Liabilities (balance as of 7-1-2012):
Los Angeles County CAFR 6-30-2013, Other Postemployment Benefits, Retiree Health Care, page 122
http://file.lacounty.gov/auditor/portal/cms1_208825.pdf  

Marin County

Pension Assets and Liabilities:
Marin County Employees Retirement Association Actuarial Valuation 6-30-13, page 5.
http://egovwebprod.marincounty.org/depts/RT/main/reports/valuations/actuarialvaluationreport2013-06-30.pdf

Pension Obligation Bonds (balance as of 6-30-2013):
Marin County CAFR 6-30-2013, Note 8, Long-Term Obligations, Pension Obligation Bonds, page 54
http://www.marincounty.org/depts/df/~/media/Files/Departments/DF/2013_Marin%20CAFR.pdf

Retirement Healthcare Assets and Liabilities (balance as of 7-1-2013):
Marin County CAFR 6-30-2013, Schedule of Funding Progress Postemployment Healthcare, “AVA,” “AAL,” page 64
http://www.marincounty.org/depts/df/~/media/Files/Departments/DF/2013_Marin%20CAFR.pdf

Mendocino County

Pension Assets and Liabilities:
Mendocino County Employees Retirement Association Actuarial Valuation 6-30-2013, page vi.
http://www.co.mendocino.ca.us/retirement/pdf/063013Valuation.pdf

Pension Obligation Bonds (balance as of 6-30-2013):
Mendocino County CAFR 6-30-2013, Note 8: Long Term Liabilities, page 41.
http://www.co.mendocino.ca.us/auditor/pdf/2013_Mendocino_afs_-_FINAL.pdf

Retirement Healthcare Assets and Liabilities (actuarial valuation as of 6-30-2013):
Mendocino County CAFR 6-30-2013, Note 12: OPEB, page 48.
http://www.co.mendocino.ca.us/auditor/pdf/2013_Mendocino_afs_-_FINAL.pdf

Merced County

Pension Assets and Liabilities:
Merced County Employees Retirement Association Actuarial Valuation 6-30-2013, pages 2 & 5. http://www.co.merced.ca.us/documents/Retirement/Annual Reports/Valuation 2013 6 30.PDF

Pension Obligation Bonds (balance as of 6-30-2013):
Merced County CAFR 6-30-2013, Outstanding Long-Term Debt, Pension Obligation Bonds, page 14

Retirement Healthcare Assets and Liabilities (actuarial valuation as of 6-30-2013):
Merced County CAFR 6-30-2013, page 68.
http://www.co.merced.ca.us/ArchiveCenter/ViewFile/Item/456

Orange County

Pension Assets and Liabilities:
Orange County sponsors a defined benefit pension through OCERS. The OCERS plans are multi-employer plans which include sponsors not related to Orange County (e.g. City of San Juan Capistrano.) Neither the Orange County CAFR nor the OCERS Acturial Valuation separately report pension assets & liabilities by employer. However, Orange County does report that it is the largest employer in OCERS and pays 88% of sponsor payments into the plan. So, Orange County’s pension assets & liabilities are estimated as 88% of total OCERS assets & liabilities.
Orange County CAFR 6-30-2013, pages 145-146.
http://ac.ocgov.com/civicax/filebank/blobdload.aspx?BlobID=33067 
Orange County Employee Retirement Association Actuarial Valuation 12-31-12. Assets & liabilities page viii.
http://www.ocers.org/pdf/finance/actuarial/valuation/2012actuarialvaluation.pdf 

Pension Obligation Bonds (balance as of 6-30-2013):
Orange County CAFR 6-30-2013, short term POBs pages 110-111, long term POBs page 117.
http://ac.ocgov.com/civicax/filebank/blobdload.aspx?BlobID=33067 

Retirement Healthcare Assets and Liabilities (actuarial valuation as of 6-30-2011):
Orange County CAFR 6-30-2013, OPEB liability pages 155 & 159.
http://ac.ocgov.com/civicax/filebank/blobdload.aspx?BlobID=33067 

Sacramento County

Pension Assets and Liabilities:
Sacramento County CAFR 6-30-2013, Actuarial value of assets & liabilities page 100.
http://www.finance.saccounty.net/AuditorController/Documents/CAFR2013.pdf 
Sacramento County Employees Retirement Association Actuarial Valuation 6-30-2013, Actuarial & Market value of assets pages viii & 6.
http://www.retirement.saccounty.net/Documents/ActualInfo/Actuarial Valuation 2013.pdf

Pension Obligation Bonds (balance as of 6-30-2013 including accreted interest):
Sacramento County CAFR 6-30-2013, Note 9 – Long-Term Obligations, page 74
http://www.finance.saccounty.net/AuditorController/Documents/CAFR2013.pdf 

Retirement Healthcare Assets and Liabilities (actuarial valuation as of 6-30-2011):
Sacramento County CAFR 6-30-2013, OPEB assets and unfunded liabilities page 102.
http://www.finance.saccounty.net/AuditorController/Documents/CAFR2013.pdf  

San Bernardino County

Pension Assets and Liabilities:

San Bernardino County Employees Retirement Association Actuarial Valuation 6-30-2013, Market value of assets page 5, Actuarial Value of assets & liabilities page 70.
http://www.sbcera.org/Portals/0/PDFs/Actuarial Valuation and Review/2013/13_Actuarial_Valuation_Review.pdf

Pension Obligation Bonds (balance as of 6-30-2013):
San Bernardino County CAFR 6-30-2013, Direct and Overlapping General Fund Obligation Debt, pages 84 & 192.
http://www.sbcounty.gov/atc/pdf/Documents/0000_00_00_178_2012-2013%20CAFR.pdf

Retirement Healthcare Assets and Liabilities (actuarial valuation as of 6-30-2013):

San Diego County

Pension Assets and Liabilities:
San Diego County Employees Retirement Association CAFR 6-30-2013. SDCERA is a multi-employer plan. There are 5 participating employers. Separate pension and OPEB results are not reported for each employer. However, it is reported that San Diego County employees represent 95.5% and the Superior Court employees represent anothyer 4.3% of SDCERA members. So, the County owns practically all of SDCERA assets & liabilities and all are attributed here to the County. Pension liabilities and Actuarial Value of Assets page 48. Market Value of Assets page 77.
http://www.sdcera.org/investments_report.htm 
These numbers are also reported in the SDCERA Actuarial Valuation 6-30-13 on page v.
http://www.sdcera.org/PDF/June_2013_valuation.pdf

Pension Obligation Bonds (balance as of 6-30-2013):
San Diego County CAFR 6-30-2013, Taxable Pension Obligation Bonds, page 82, Table 27
http://www.sdcounty.ca.gov/auditor/annual_report13/pdf/cafr1213.pdf 

Retirement Healthcare Assets and Liabilities (actuarial valuation as of 6-30-2012):
San Diego County Employees Retirement Association CAFR 6-30-2013, page 49.
http://www.sdcera.org/investments_report.htm 

San Joaquin County

Pension Assets and Liabilities:
San Joaquin County Employees Retirement Association Actuarial Valuation 01-01-2013, pages 3 & 16.
http://www.sjcera.org/Pages/index.htm

Pension Obligation Bonds (balance as of 6-30-2013):
No POBs are reported in the CAFR.

Retirement Healthcare Assets and Liabilities (actuarial valuation as of 6-30-2013):
San Joaquin County CAFR 6-30-2013, pages 73 & 81.
http://www.sjgov.org/uploadedFiles/SJC/Departments/Auditor/Services/2012-13 SJC Financial Statements Final.pdf

San Mateo County

Pension Assets and Liabilities:
San Mateo County CAFR 6-30-2013, Actuarial Value of assets & liabilities pages 69 & 80. Balances as of 6-30-2013.
http://www.co.sanmateo.ca.us/Attachments/controller/Files/CAFR/2013CAFR.pdf
San Mateo County Employee Retirement Association Actuarial Valuation 6-30-2013 [actuary = Milliman], Market Value of assets page 11. Balance as of 6-30-2013.
http://www.samcera.org/pdf/2013valuation.pdf

Pension Obligation Bonds (balance as of 6-30-2013):
No outstanding POBs are reported in the San Mateo County CAFR.

Retirement Healthcare Assets and Liabilities (actuarial valuation as of 6-30-2013):
San Mateo County CAFR 6-30-2013, Funded Status and Funding Progress, “AAL” and “UAAL.” page 71
http://www.co.sanmateo.ca.us/Attachments/controller/Files/CAFR/2013CAFR.pdf

Santa Barbara County

Pension Assets and Liabilities:
Santa Barbara County Employees Retirement Association Actuarial Valuation 6-30-13, page 5.
http://www.countyofsb.org/uploadedFiles/sbcers/benefits/2013 Valuation.pdf

Pension Obligation Bonds (balance as of 6-30-2013):
No POBs are reported in the CAFR.

Retirement Healthcare Assets and Liabilities (actuarial valuation as of 6-30-2012):
Santa Barbara County CAFR 6-30-2013, OPEb Schedule of Funding Progress, “Actuarial Value of Assets,” “AAL,” page 106
http://countyofsb.org/uploadedFiles/auditor/Publications/1213%20CAFR.pdf

Sonoma County

Pension Assets and Liabilities:
Sonoma County Employees Retirement Association Actuarial Valuation 12-31-2012, pave viii.
http://scretire.org/uploadedFiles/SCERA/Resource_Center/News_and_Updates/2013/ActuarialValuationAsOf12-31-12.pdf

Pension Obligation Bonds (balance as of 6-30-2013):
Sonoma County CAFR 6-30-2013, Long-Term Liabilities, Pension Obligation Bonds, page 20
http://www.sonoma-county.org/auditor/financial_reports.htm
(Click on “2012-2013 Comprehensive Annual Financial Report”)

Retirement Healthcare Assets and Liabilities (balance as of 6-30-2013):
Sonoma County CAFR 6-30-2013, Schedule of Funding Progress, “AVA,” “AAL,” page 111
http://www.sonoma-county.org/auditor/financial_reports.htm
(Click on “2012-2013 Comprehensive Annual Financial Report”)

Stanislaus County

Pension Assets and Liabilities:
Stanislaus County Employees Retirement Association Actuarial Valuation 6-30-2013, page 5.
http://www.stancera.org/sites/default/files/Financials/20130630_Actuarial_Report.pdf

Pension Obligation Bonds (balance as of 6-30-2013):
Stanislaus County CAFR 6-30-2013, Note 11: Summary of Long Term Debt page 74.
http://www.stancounty.com/auditor/pdf/AFR2013.PDF

Retirement Healthcare Assets and Liabilities (actuarial valuation as of 7-1-2012):
Stanislaus County CAFR 6-30-2013, Note 19: OPEB page 91
http://www.stancounty.com/auditor/pdf/AFR2013.PDF

Tulare County

Pension Assets and Liabilities:
Tulare County Employees Retirement Association Actuarial Valuation 6-30-2013, page 1.
http://www.tcera.org/Publications.php

Pension Obligation Bonds (balance as of 6-30-2013):
Tulare County CAFR 6-30-2013. There was no balance due on any POB as of 6-30-2013.
http://tularecounty.ca.gov/auditorcontroller/index.cfm/auditor-controller/financial-reports1/comprehensive-annual-financial-report-cafr/cafr-2012-2013/

Retirement Healthcare Assets and Liabilities (actuarial valuation as of 6-30-2012):
Tulare County CAFR 6-30-2013, pages 71 & 78.
http://tularecounty.ca.gov/auditorcontroller/index.cfm/auditor-controller/financial-reports1/comprehensive-annual-financial-report-cafr/cafr-2012-2013/ 

Ventura County

Pension Assets and Liabilities:
Ventura County Employees Retirement Association Actuarial Valuation 6-30-13, page vi
http://vcportal.ventura.org/VCERA/docs/publications/Actuarial_Valuation_as_of_June_30_2013.pdf

Pension Obligation Bonds (balance as of 6-30-2013):
No POBs are reported in the CAFR.

Retirement Healthcare Assets and Liabilities (actuarial valuation as of 6-30-2013):
Ventura County CAFR 6-30-2013, page 100
http://www.ventura.org/auditor-controller/comprehensive-annual-financial-report-2013

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 [1], but an estimated 25% of the total pension costs [2], 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.

*   *   * 

INTRODUCTION

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. [3]

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. [4]

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%. [5]

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. [6]

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.

*   *   *

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. [7]

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.

*   *   *

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

20140404_Ring-Fellner_CalPERS-by-Svc-and-Ret_1

 *   *   *

 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

20140404_Ring-Fellner_SJ-by-Svc-and-Ret

*   *   *

PUBLIC SAFETY PENSIONS – LOS ANGELES

The Los Angeles Fire and Police Employees’ Pension plan reported 10,040 individuals receiving a pension benefit for 2013 [8]; 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

20140404_Ring-Fellner_LA-by-Svc-and-Ret

*   *   *

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

20140404_Ring-Fellner_LA-w-DROP-by-Svc-and-Ret_RFver3

*   *   *

CONCLUSION

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. [9] 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. [10]

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.

 *   *   *

 FOOTNOTES

(1)  U.S. Census Bureau, California Local Government Payroll 2012California 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

*   *   *

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.