How Can Troubled California Cities Address Rising Pension Costs?

San Bernardino

Matthew Covington penned a column for the Sacramento Bee on Thursday that dives into California’s recent spree of municipal bankruptcies — and postulates that, with pension costs rising, bankrupt cities of the future may not opt to preserve pensions the way Vallejo, Stockton and San Bernardino did.

Covington is a managing director at Conway MacKenzie, a financial firm that advises distressed governments. He proposes two possible solutions that could help troubled municipalities deal with pension costs. His ideas:

Establish a protocol for restructuring municipal pensions out of court.

For troubled municipalities, pensions are typically the single largest expense, the most intractable and the most uncontrollable (because CalPERS determines what the municipality will pay each year). If CalPERS decides to change its investment return or mortality assumptions, or its investment performance suffers, the municipality will have to pay more, regardless of its own activities. If a municipality is in dire straits and cannot meet its obligations, an orderly restructuring would likely be superior to a bankruptcy filing.

This could save tens of millions of dollars for the city in fees on lawyers and other advisers. Additionally, plans could be tailored to minimize the impact on vulnerable groups such as the elderly and long-retired pensioners whose pensions were set in the premillennial sane era, something which might not be possible in a bankruptcy case.

Provide uniform budgeting rules and guidance.

Too many municipalities have made promises that jeopardize their long-term fiscal health. While no one wants another bureaucracy meddling in local affairs, the task force could establish certain basic rules such as requiring municipalities to have long-term budget forecasts that clearly show pension expenses and require additional disclosure when a threshold is crossed.

For example, municipalities whose pension expenses exceed 20 percent of total expenditures (the levels at which voters in the non-CalPERS cities of San Jose and San Diego ratified pension amendments) could be forced to explain why the expenditure levels do not threaten the city’s financial stability.

The costs of municipal bankruptcies are borne not just by the creditors who invested in these cities, but also by residents hit with plummeting property values and deteriorating services. California can do more to protect its citizens from these failures. Let’s put systems in place to ensure this dangerous game isn’t played again.

Read the full column here.


Photo by  Pete Zarria via Flickr CC License

Moody’s: Deals With CalPERS Will Further “Weaken” Bankrupt California Cities

San Bernardino

Three California cities – Stockton, San Bernardino, and Vallejo – have declared bankruptcy in recent years. But all three have struck deals with CalPERS to keep its citizens’ pension benefits intact.

That’s a win for pensioners, but Moody’s says the deals may not be healthy for the cities: they will have to pay large, rising contributions to CalPERS, and risk “weakening” their financial profiles in the process.

From Chief Investment Officer:

Moody’s said [San Bernardino] would face rising bills from CalPERS in the years ahead.

“San Bernardino’s choice to leave its accrued pension liabilities unimpaired means that its contribution requirements to CalPERS will likely increase to the point where they weaken the city’s financial profile, even after the relief provided by the bankruptcy adjustments,” said report authors Gregory Lipitz and Thomas Aaron.

The pair added that they expect similar “weakening” in both Stockton and Vallejo, two other Californian cities that have reached funding agreements with CalPERS following bankruptcy. CalPERS and the California State Teachers’ Retirement System have both been increasing employer contribution rates to deal with funding gaps and improvements in longevity.

“CalPERS’ latest actuarial valuations for each city forecast unrelenting increases to required contributions, despite the very strong investment performance of CalPERS in 2013 and 2014,” Moody’s said.

Actuarial projections indicate that by 2021, the three cities’ contributions could rise to between 30 percent and 40 percent of payroll.

University of California Considers Raising Tuition As Pension Liabilities Mount

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The University of California is considering a plan that would raise tuition by 5 percent each of the next five years.

If the plan is approved, the extra revenue will go, in part, towards paying down billions in unfunded liabilities associated with the University’s pension plan.

From the Sacramento Bee:

When the University of California Board of Regents on Wednesday debates a plan to raise tuition by up to 5 percent annually over each of the next five years, they will focus on how the revenue could benefit the university’s academic mission: expanded course offerings, more support services, 5,000 more slots for California students.

But UC officials say the system also needs the money to help rescue its pension fund – neglected for two decades and facing $7.2 billion in unfunded liabilities – and to cover the growing cost of retiree health benefits.

“They’re going to have to ramp up contributions considerably over the next few years in order to maintain the financial health of the system,” said Adam Tatum, a retirement systems specialist at California Common Sense, a nonpartisan policy research organization. “What is certain is that the UC needs more money to pay off these unfunded liabilities – if not now, then in the future. That’s inevitable.”

This year, UC will pay about $1.3 billion to the pension fund, about 5 percent of its overall operating budget.

The University has asked the state to cover a portion of the school’s payments into the system. But California hasn’t taken the school up on their offer. From the Bee:

UC officials want the state’s general fund to pick up nearly a third of the payment, which would cover the university’s portion of pension contributions for faculty and other employees who are paid from state funds.

“Frankly, if the state were to pay that, we would not be proposing a tuition increase,” said Nathan Brostrom, UC’s chief financial officer. “That is money that could go to other resources.”

UC notes that the state covers the costs of employer pension contributions to CalPERS for other state agencies, including California State University. “This is money we’re paying out of our own resources that the state is providing to every other state agency,” Brostrom said. “It’s just a matter of equity. Why do they not take any action to help us with it?”

Gov. Jerry Brown’s administration maintains that UC, with a good deal of governing autonomy and its own retirement system, should cover the costs. H.D. Palmer, spokesman for the Department of Finance, said the state’s taxpayers aren’t obligated to help UC cover its liabilities. He said the state has increased UC’s general fund allocation so the university could determine its own fiscal priorities.

“They have an independent system,” Palmer said. “We don’t have any input on the structure of the system. We don’t have any input on the level of benefits.”

The UC Retirement Plan is 76 percent funded.

CalPERS Commits $100 Million to San Francisco Bay Apartment Developments

businessman holding small model house in his hands

CalPERS has committed $100 million to the AGI Resmark Housing Fund, which invests in three apartment development sites in the San Francisco Bay area.

More details from IPE Real Estate:

CalPERS, which declined to comment, has now allocated a total of $300m into its emerging manager program for real estate, having previously backed Sack Properties and Rubicon Point Partners in the office and data centre sectors.


With leverage at 70%, total investment could be as much as $330m.

Development properties are unlikely to be sold to other institutional owners, as was the case with Avant Housing.

Holding apartment developments and transferring them to another CalPERS account once the properties become core is a more likely option, IP Real Estate understands.

AGI Capital and the Resmark Company are serving as the respective emerging and mentoring managers for the fund.

CalPERS has previously worked with AGI in its Avant Housing venture with TMG Partners, to which it made a $100m allocation.

Resmark, which has since replaced TMG, expects three development sites to be placed into the new relationship with AGI.

An existing, 259-unit project, previously under the control of TMG and Avant Housing, has been moved to the new venture.

Ground-breaking is scheduled in the next 30 days, with the project due for completion in 19 months.

CalPERS is in the midst of a plan to increase real estate investments by 27 percent over the next few years.

California Attorney: Bankruptcy “Not a Practical or Desirable” Way To Cut Pensions

scissors cutting dollar bill in half

Teague Paterson, an attorney from Sacramento specializing in labor law, has penned a column in Monday’s Sacramento Bee in which he explains his position that bankruptcy is “not a practical or desirable” way to cut pension benefits.

From the column:

Imagine for a moment that you have run into deep financial trouble and have decided to file for bankruptcy protection. Your credit rating plummets, your home is sold at a fire sale, and you can’t rent an apartment or buy a car. You spend long hours at the negotiating table as creditors pick over the remains of your finances. Ultimately, you place your future in the hands of a total stranger, the bankruptcy judge.

Isn’t that a scenario that you would try to avoid at all costs?

If the consequences for an individual facing bankruptcy are devastating, the consequences for a municipality are 10 times as dangerous. Bankrupt cities face soaring crime rates, shrinking property sales, and the reduction or elimination of basic public services. It’s is not a decision that an elected official or city manager would willingly make unless there were no other options, as the decision by a bankruptcy judge presiding over Stockton’s bankruptcy makes clear.

Judge Christopher Klein’s ruling Thursday to approve Stockton’s bankruptcy plan confirms that the situation in Stockton will have little impact over the larger national debate on public pensions. Municipalities will not be filing for bankruptcy in waves in efforts to jettison pension debt.

For the very few severely distressed cities that may consider bankruptcy, the question will not be whether they can reduce pensions, but whether they should. In Stockton, the answer to that question was clear to all with a stake in Stockton’s future – and after two years of litigation that cost tens of millions of taxpayer dollars, the bankruptcy judge agreed.

Another key excerpt from the column:

Despite the media attention to cities such as Stockton and Detroit, municipal bankruptcy is exceedingly rare. According to one analysis, 13 local governments had bankruptcy filings since 2008. Five of those have been dismissed. To put it in context, there are more than 39,000 local governments in the U.S.

Although the bankruptcy process threatened to rob Stockton of its ability to make the best decisions for its residents, ultimately the judge accepted the city’s decision. In Stockton, the practicalities of running a city with an eye toward a brighter future shaped this outcome. Judge Klein acknowledged the serious and considerable pre-bankruptcy concessions accepted by Stockton’s employees, and the virtual guarantee that employees would leave to work elsewhere if Stockton reduced their compensation any further.

Stockton faced a unique set of circumstances brought on by revenue losses and a crippling national recession. Thankfully, it’s a situation that the overwhelming majority of municipalities will never have to face. As much as pension opponents would like to focus their analyses of Stockton as a blow to pension security, bankruptcy is simply not a practical or desirable option for cities dealing with pension obligations.

Read the whole piece here.


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New California Pension Data Now Online

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California’s financial transparency website now features pension data on its state, county, and city-level pension systems.

The site includes data on assets, liabilities, funding ratios, membership statistics and actuarially required contributions, among other things.

More from MML News:

State Controller John Chiang has just made over a decade’s worth of state pension fund information available for public view on his open data website,

The site already allows taxpayers to track balance sheets of the state’s 58 counties and 450-plus cities in terms of their revenues, expenditures, liabilities, assets, and fund balances.

According to Chiang, this latest, massive data dump, representing over a million new data fields, provides “a one-stop portal into the financial underpinnings” of each of California’s 130 public pension systems. The information comes as the state and local communities continue to wrestle with managing pension costs, including how to manage the unfunded liabilities associated with providing retirement security to police, firefighters, teachers and other providers of critical public services.

The Sacramento Bee has already crunched some of the numbers:

Local-government employers contributions to defined-benefit retirement systems have nearly tripled in the last 11 years, according to the most recent data published by the California State Controller’s Office, while employee contributions have nearly doubled.

Meanwhile, more retirees are drawing money from their retirement systems while fewer active employees are paying in. Some of the troubling numbers:

– Cities and counties statewide paid $17.52 billion last year into pension funds, up from $6.38 billion in 2003. Employees’ contributions rose from $5.21 billion to $9.07 billion in 2013.

– Despite receiving more money, pension systems’ unfunded liabilities soared from $6.33 billion to $198.16 billion over the 11-year span.

– The number of local government retirees drawing benefits increased 50 percent, from a little over 800,000 in 2003 to 1.22 million last year.

– In 2013, there were 2.14 million active employees who paid into their retirement systems, down slightly from 2.25 million workers on local government payrolls in 2003.

You can view the data at

Think Tank: Blame Pension Costs For The 140 Tax Increases On California’s Ballot

Seal of California

When Californians go to vote on November 4, they will find a ballot stuffed with tax hikes. There will be 140 different proposed tax increases on ballots across California. Is there a reason behind the surge?

Mark Bucher, president of the California Policy Center, thinks he knows the reason. In a new column he says voters need look no further than pension costs. From Bucher’s column in the Sacramento Bee:

Tax-weary Californians looking to explain this paradox need look only to former Vernon (population 114) city administrator Bruce Malkenhorst for an answer.

Malkenhorst received a $552,000 pension in 2013, according to just-released 2013 CalPERS pension data on


Malkenhorst is part of a growing number of 99 California retirees who received at least half-million-dollar pension payouts in 2013, up from four in 2012. Such lucrative pensions mean that in 2014, California will spend approximately $45 billion on pensions, equaling total state and local welfare spending for the first time. And in the zero-sum game of government spending, an extra dollar spent on pensions means one less spent on welfare, infrastructure or safety – or returned to the taxpayer.

Though Malkenhorst and his ilk personify California’s pension profligacy, they do not drive it. That distinction goes to the 40,000 California retirees who took home pensions greater than $100,000 in 2013.

These are the pensions of Susan Kent, a retired Los Angeles city librarian, who took home a $137,000 pension in 2013. And Thomas Place, a retired San Joaquin court reporter, whose pension was $105,000. And, Betty Smith, a retired Alameda nurse, who received $116,000.

Anecdotal evidence aside, more tax dollars than ever are going toward paying pension costs. From Bucher:

Six-figure pensions for mid-level public servants have brought the state to the point where one out of every nine state and local tax dollars goes to pay for pensions. That’s up from one in 16 tax dollars in 1994. Tax increases now do not increase government services, but simply service government pensions.

And these compensation figures do not include five-figure health benefit obligations, which will only increase as the population ages and health care costs inflate. Bankrupt Stockton, where city employees who worked as little as one month receive a lifetime of retiree health benefits (including spousal coverage), is already paying this price.

Barring pension reform, Stockton – where one in five tax dollars will soon go to pensions – is a harbinger of things to come for other California cities that find themselves at some point on Stockton’s adverse pension spiral: Big pension obligations mean fewer tax dollars for services like safety and infrastructure, driving away taxpayers and increasing pension burdens further. Hence the need for yet more tax increases.

But taxpayers are having trouble keeping up: California pension funds are currently only 74 percent funded. And this is an optimistic estimate given that pension funds assume a very high rate of return of about 7.5 percent per year, an ambitious goal in this investment climate. For every 1 percent this projection drops, California taxpayers must contribute $10 billion more per year to maintain the same funding level, according to a recent analysis by the California Policy Center, using investment formulas provided by Moody’s Investors Service.

The entire column can be read here.

“Historic” Ruling Expected in Stockton Bankruptcy Case; Can A Bankrupt California City Cut Pensions?

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Can a bankrupt California city legally reduce both its payments to CalPERS and the pension benefits it promised to its workers?

Those are the questions that will likely be answered by the end of the day Wednesday in what’s already being called a “historic” ruling. From the Sacramento Bee:

After months of buildup, U.S. Bankruptcy Judge Christopher Klein is likely to rule on a protest filed by one of Stockton’s creditors, Franklin Templeton Investments. Franklin said the city can’t continue paying its full pension contribution every year to CalPERS while offering a meager payout on the $36 million owed to the investment firm.

At a July 8 hearing, Klein hinted that he was sympathetic to Franklin’s view. “I might be persuaded that … the pensions can be adjusted,” he said.

It’s not at all certain whether Stockton would reduce its pension payments, even if Klein says it can. Under state law, CalPERS says it would have no choice but to end Stockton’s pension plan. Pension benefits would drop by an estimated 60 percent, which city officials believe would trigger a mass exodus by police officers and other employees.

Regardless of what Stockton does, CalPERS has been fighting strenuously to avoid a legal ruling that says pension contributions are no longer untouchable. The giant pension fund’s lawyers say CalPERS is merely trying to protect a system that serves the public well.

“Pensions secure financial futures and help the state and its local subdivisions recruit and retain valuable public servants,” CalPERS’ lawyers said in a recent court filing. “Putting a cloud over public pensions only invites worry and uncertainty about the security of those pensions.”

Public pensions have been considered ironclad for generations. State legislatures are free to reduce benefits for new workers, as California did in 2013, but it’s long been agreed that promises made to existing employees and retirees must be kept.

Those legal protections, however, have been under duress ever since Stockton filed for bankruptcy protection in 2012. Several of the city’s Wall Street bond creditors, who lent the city more than $200 million during the housing boom, warned that they would fight in court if they were left with peanuts and the city’s $29 million-a-year contribution to CalPERS was left intact.

A bankruptcy judge ruled earlier this summer that Detroit could indeed cut pension benefits as part of its bankruptcy proceedings.

But CalPERS argues that the ruling doesn’t apply to California, because California protects pension benefits under its constitution. Michigan doesn’t.

California Unveils Finance Data Website; Pension Data To Be Added Later

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California has launched, a website designed to give citizens easy access to financial data for every city and county in the state.

The website, launched by Controller John Chiang, will eventually contain data for all of the more than 100 pension funds in California. That data will include investment returns, administrative costs, assets and liabilities.

From the Fresno Bee: allows taxpayers to track revenues, expenditures, liabilities, assets, fund balances and other information provided by more than 450 cities and the 58 counties statewide. The data runs from fiscal year 2002-03 through 2012-13.

Controller John Chiang, who is running for state treasurer, said in a statement that the website is moving government information “out of the analog dark ages into the digital era.”

The website allows users to download raw figures, convert them into charts and share the information freely. Chiang’s office said the data will be refreshed each year with updates sent in by local governments.

Chiang is a member of the boards of both major California pension funds, CalPERS and CalSTRS.

17 States Considering State-Run Retirement Plans Aimed at Private Sector Workers

Early retirements

Many private-sector workers don’t have access to retirement plans through their employers, and states across the country are now trying to solve that issue. The trend has flown under the radar, but well over a dozen states are in the process of setting up (or brainstorming) a state-run retirement plan that caters to private-sector employees.

From Benefits Pro:

According to the Pension Rights Center’s website, 17 states are at some stage of legislating state-administered plans that hope to deliver retirement plan access to the country’s smallest employers.

Among them, Maryland, Connecticut and Illinois have either set up a commission to study creation of statewide retirement programs or taken early steps to create such programs.

Nebraska has held hearings examining the state of its private-sector employees’ retirement readiness. Indiana is moving forward, too, as are Arizona, Colorado, Minnesota, Ohio, Oregon and Vermont.

More specifics on a few of the initiatives from Benefits Pro:

In Connecticut, a panel is evaluating whether state-run automatic individual retirement accounts or other retirement programs could help increase savings. The panel is expected to issue an interim report by May.

In Illinois, legislation has been introduced that would require employers who have 25 or more employees but don’t offer a retirement plan to automatically enroll workers in a Roth IRA with a 3 percent payroll deduction.

In Maryland, a retirement program task force was established after a lawmaker wrote a bill requiring employers with at least five employees who don’t offer a retirement plan to establish an automatic 3 percent payroll deduction into a retirement plan.

California, as usual, was among the first states to have begin implementing the idea of a state-sponsored retirement plan for private sector workers. In 2012, Jerry Brown passed the Secure Choice Retirement Savings Trust Act, which eventually will require all business with over five employees to enroll their employees in the state plan.

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