Stockton Can Cut Pensions And Stop Paying CalPERS. But Will It?

Flag of California

In a groundbreaking decision, a judge ruled yesterday that the bankrupt city of Stockton, California could indeed cut worker pensions and halt payments to CalPERS. From the LA Times:

A federal bankruptcy judge dealt a serious blow to California’s public employee pension systems by ruling Wednesday that payments for future worker retirements can be reduced when a city declares bankruptcy — just like its other debts.

U.S. Bankruptcy Judge Christopher Klein ruled that bankruptcy law supersedes California pension laws that require cities to fund their workers’ future retirement checks.

“I’ve concluded the pension could be adjusted,” Klein said.

The potentially groundbreaking decision came after a large creditor of Stockton, which filed for bankruptcy protection two years ago, asked the judge to reduce the amount the city owes to the California Public Employees’ Retirement System, the nation’s largest public pension fund.

Until now, CalPERS had argued successfully in the bankruptcy cases of other California cities that amounts it requires for public worker pensions could not legally be reduced.

But just because Stockton can cut pensions doesn’t mean the city will. The city’s current bankruptcy plan doesn’t include pension cuts or the halting of payments to CalPERS. From the Sacramento Bee:

The practical effect of Klein’s ruling is unclear. It depends in large part on whether Klein will accept Stockton’s financial reorganization plan – a plan under which the city promises to keep making its annual $29 million pension payments in order to retain its relationship with CalPERS.

If Stockton gets Klein’s approval and can resolve its bankruptcy without slashing pensions, the impact of Klein’s ruling is blunted somewhat. But Klein won’t rule on the city’s plan until Oct. 30.

Because of Stockton’s pledge, CalPERS attorney Michael Gearin downplayed the decision and said it doesn’t force the city to cut its pension payments. “It doesn’t establish a precedent. Those were his comments about a hypothetical city” that wants to cut ties with the California Public Employees’ Retirement System, he said.

The city seems to have an interest in working to keep pensions intact. Staying with CalPERS, on the other hand, is being viewed as a reluctant necessity. From the Sacramento Bee:

City officials have said they have no choice but to stick with CalPERS. If it doesn’t pay the pension fund in full, default would occur, and the city would either have to make a one-time payment of $1.6 billion to keep pensions whole or let CalPERS slash benefits by 60 percent. The result would be a mass exodus of employees, the city said, creating an enormous setback just as the troubled city, saddled with poverty and a high crime rate, is starting to get back on its feet.

CalPERS released a statement immediately after the ruling expressing their disappointment with the decision and claimed that the ruling was “not legally binding”. From Reuters:

“This ruling is not legally binding on any of the parties in the Stockton case or as precedent in any other bankruptcy proceeding and is unnecessary to the decision on confirmation of the City of Stockton’s plan of adjustment,” Calpers spokeswoman Rosanna Westmoreland said in an emailed statement.

“CalPERS will reserve any further comment until such time as the court renders its final written decision. What’s important to keep in mind is what the City of Stockton stated in court today: that they can’t function as a city if their pensions are impaired.”

Judgement Due in Court Battle Waged By Workers Excluded From Pension System Because of Medical Issues

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A five-year long court fight continues to play out in Jacksonville, and chances are good this lawsuit will continue to stretch on even after an initial judgement is filed.

City employees filed the class-action lawsuit after Jacksonville barred many workers with medical issues from entering the pension system. The workers say the city violated the Americans with Disabilities Act. From the Florida Times-Union:

The suit involves about 1,400 employees, and at one point their lawyers said the case might affect up to $500 million of pension payments, spread over 30 years. But there are too many details unanswered still for either side to talk about a price tag yet.

The employees bringing the suit argue the city violated ADA rules by requiring new workers to be screened for health problems such as diabetes and heart disease before they could enroll in the city’s pension system. People with medical issues could be blocked from enrolling in the pension and would instead pay into Social Security, or they could sign a waiver that disqualified them from getting any death or disability benefits based on their particular issue.

“The sole purpose of the examination was to address the terms under which an employee would be admitted to the pension plans, if admitted at all,” reads the judgment drafted by the plaintiffs.

The city changed its rules in 2010 to allow employees to buy pension coverage they couldn’t get earlier, but the suit is about what expenses the city should cover.

The city has argued that it has no liability in the case; if the judge rules on the side of the city, the case will wind down quickly.

But if the ruling falls on the side of employees, more court battles loom. Among them: how much does the city owe? Once that number is determined, the court will need to decide how to divvy up the damages amongst the employees.

Court Battle Continues Over Allegedly Illegal Pension Changes in Delaware

Delaware map

In Delaware Township, public employees need an auditor’s approval before they receive any changes to their salaries or pensions.

But auditors are claiming two Township supervisors put themselves in a new pension plan without going through the proper channels. Further, the supervisors allegedly broke a separate law when they made the new pension plan retroactive to the dates they started their jobs.

A judge had previously dismissed the auditor’s case, but an appeal is underway. As reported by the Pocono Record:

The court battle will continue over the pension arrangement of two former Delaware Township employees who were also elected supervisors.

Township auditors will appeal a judge’s decision to dismiss their case, which asked that pension payments be stopped for Ileana Hernandez and Ted Parsell, and for the court to order them to pay back any pension money they’ve already collected.

In a written statement in response to the decision, auditors Dennis Lee, Michael Dickerson and Jane Neufeld note that it was township supervisors in 2012 who asked auditors to look into the pension plan.

The case, in the Pike County Court of Common Pleas, alleged that Hernandez and Parsell were illegally compensated after, as supervisors, they approved lucrative pension plans for themselves.

More background on the case and the laws involved, from the Pocono Record:

The Pennsylvania second-class township code states any change in salary or pension must first be approved by the auditors, and any change becomes effective for supervisors/employees only after they are re-elected.

In March 2006, Supervisors Bob Luciano, Hernandez and Parsell and township Solicitor Anthony Magnotta met with then-auditors Dickerson, Louise Chattaway and Kathleen Cancelino.

The supervisors were seeking auditor approval of a proposed new pension plan, but they did not provide any paperwork for the plan.

Instead, Magnotta and the supervisors verbally explained the new pension to the auditors, and it was approved “as presented.”

But at a regular supervisors meeting in March 2006, supervisors approved a pension plan that was different from what was presented to the auditors and made it retroactive to their start dates.

The auditors say they fear the precedent the court would set if they dismissed the case, referring to a lack of accountability for Township supervisors who skirt the law.

 

Photo: “Flag-map of Delaware” by Darwinek. Licensed under Creative Commons 

Pension Tax Could Loom Large in Race for Michigan Governorship

Detroit, Michigan

Pensions aren’t the biggest issue in Michigan’s race for governor. But with incumbent Rick Snyder in a dead heat with challenger Mark Schauer, Snyder’s 2011 pension tax increase could prove to be a major factor in the way the race eventually plays out.

From Money News:

Polls have shown Snyder, 56, in a dead heat with Democratic challenger Mark Schauer, 52, a former state legislator and congressman who’s hammering Snyder for hurting pensioners while cutting business taxes by $1.4 billion.

“I’m very sorry I voted for Mr. Snyder,” said Rosalind Weber, 67, a retired state worker from Ionia who calls herself an independent. “I won’t vote for him again. I didn’t like what he did with the taxes.”

Snyder bucked a decades-old trend among states of reducing taxes on retirees. While other issues are stirring the race, Michigan’s 7.7 percent July unemployment rate remained above a 6.2 percent U.S. average, the pension tax is driving a Democratic drumbeat for change in Lansing, where Republicans control all three branches of government.

Until Snyder’s changes took effect, Michigan had exempted most pension payments from the income tax, now at 4.25 percent. He created a three-tier system for retirees born before 1946, after 1952 and those in between. Members of the youngest group were hit hardest; instead of being allowed to exempt $47,309 in retirement income, they’re now taxed fully until age 67. Then, they get a $20,000 exemption.

Michigan’s House Fiscal Agency estimates that the tax cost retirees around $350 million in 2013 alone. And, as everyone knows, seniors vote. We’ll see how the race plays out, but the pension tax increase is sure to be an issue moving forward.

Pennsylvania Pension Reform Not Likely As Election Draws Closer

Governor Tom Corbett

The election for Pennsylvania governor draws closer, but pension reform seems farther away than ever.

Gov. Tom Corbett has made pension reform his campaign cry. But he remains down in the polls as the urgency to pass pension reform dwindles around him—both from inside and outside the capitol. ABC 27 reports:

A typical late-August day and all is quiet at the Capitol.

But this silence is not golden for a governor who has criss-crossed the state begging/cajoling/shaming/pleading with lawmakers to give him pension reform.

“We have a bill out there right now that I want the legislature to come back and finish,” Governor Tom Corbett said a week after the legislative exodus in early July.

The governor has poster boards calling pensions a $50 billion problem that will burden future generations of Pennsylvanians.

There is disagreement among lawmakers on how to fix pensions and disagreement as to whether there’s even a problem.

“The word crisis is being used for ideological reasons, not any mathematical reasons,” insists Senator Rob Teplitz (D-Dauphin).

Teplitz, and most Democrats, believe the problem was created by the state failing, for years, to pay what it owed toward pensions and now it’s time to pay the consequences and pay up.

“It does feel more painful,” Teplitz said. “But just like any family that delays making its credit card payment, sooner or later you gotta make that payment.”

There’s no urgency among lawmakers because there’s not urgency among voters, said one pollster. Education funding is on the mind of the electorate, not pension reform. From the Philadelphia Daily News:

[Pollster Terry] Madonna said that for voters the pension-funding increase is “not something they relate to,” while Pennsylvania school districts raise local property taxes, lay off staff and curtail programs.

Other high-level observers agree that voters aren’t as engaged on pension issues. From ABC 27:

“It’s something that the public still hasn’t been able to get its arms around,” said Lowman Henry, a conservative commentator with the Lincoln Institute. “As a result, you’re not seeing that type of collective pressure on lawmakers that is going to push them to make what are very difficult decisions in an election year.”

The latest poll shows Corbett trailing his Democratic challenger, Tom Wolf, by 25 points. Wolf currently holds 49 percent of the vote, while Corbett holds 24 percent. Twenty-five percent of voters remain undecided.

Quitting CalPERS Comes With Price For California Cities

California State Seal

City officials from a handful of California cities—Canyon Lake, Pacific Grove and, most recently, Villa Park—have publicly weighed the option of leaving the CalPERS system as their memberships become more costly.

But leaving CalPERS got a lot less enticing when the cities learned about the fee that would be levied on them upon their departure—a termination fee that could be as high as $3.6 million for Villa Park alone. From Reuters:

Villa Park fears that pulling out of its contract with the California Public Employees’ Retirement System could be prohibitively expensive because of a termination fee that could exceed the city’s annual budget.

Calpers, America’s biggest public pension fund with assets of $300 billion, last provided the city with a hypothetical termination fee of nearly $3.6 million as of June 2012. The city’s annual budget is $3.5 million.

“Getting out of Calpers is like getting out of jail,” said Rick Barnett, mayor of Villa Park, population 5,800. The City Council will vote next month on a resolution to begin the process of quitting Calpers.

Calpers recently voted to raise rates roughly 50 percent over the next seven years, citing its responsibility to maintain the fiscal soundness of the fund.

Now Villa Park is following the trajectory as California cities who have tried, but ultimately declined, to leave CalPERS in the past. Reuters reports:

Two other California cities, Pacific Grove and Canyon Lake, tried to quit Calpers last year, but both balked when they learned the termination fee.

If a city quits, Calpers continues to administer pension payments for the current and retired workers already on the books at the time of termination.

To do that, Calpers generally asks for an up-front sum to pay for potential future pension costs for all current and retired workers on city rolls.

Canyon Lake, with an annual budget of $3.6 million, was handed a termination bill last year of $1.3 million.

Keith Breskin, Canyon Lake’s city manager, said: “It would have been a serious depletion on our reserves, so the city decided not to proceed.”

If a city quits, Calpers also places that city’s funds in a more conservative risk pool, which lowers the potential return rate on its investments and in turn boosts the termination fee.

Villa Park Mayor Rick Barnett said this week that the termination fee hasn’t completely deterred the city from their plan to leave CalPERS. He did, however, leave open the possibility that the termination fee would be too burdensome to even consider leaving the System.

Retirees Blast Mass. City Retirement Board For “Criminal” Cutbacks

Board room

Retirees, labor group leaders and even a city councilman are upset at the Leominster, Massachusetts Retirement Board after the Board voted to eliminate a cost-of-living increase in pension payments for the fifth straight year. Reported by the Sentinel and Enterprise:

“We think it’s unconscionable that our local retirees haven’t received a (cost-of-living increase) which they need,” Shawn Duhamel, the legislative liaison for the Retired State, County and Municipal Employees Association of Massachusetts, said Wednesday. “They are largely reliant on their pension as their sole income, so not having a cost-of-living increase for five years really hurts retirees, and we think it’s unnecessary.”

Out of 105 retirement systems in the state, Leominster is the only community to deny a cost of living increase in recent years, according to the association’s monthly newsletter. Somerville is the only other community to miss a cost of living increase dating to 1998.

Mayor Dean Mazzarella defended the retirement board’s decision not to increase benefits while it works to reinvest and fully fund its post employment financial requirements.

Critics have lashed out, in part, because the COLA denial comes in the wake of the Board’s above-average investment returns and the recent decision to lower its assumed rate of return.

The Board’s investments returned 21 percent in 2013, and the assumed rate of return was lowered from 6.5 percent to 5.5 percent. From the Sentinel and Enterprise:

If the retirement board maintained projects of 6.5 percent rate of return based on 2013 earnings the city’s post employment benefits obligation would be fully funded, Duhamel said.

Leominster should be proud of its long success, which is outperforming almost all others in the state, but instead of sharing the wealth with retirees is taking a different approach, Duhamel said.

The retirement board’s projection of lower returns puts a bigger burden on taxpayers to fund the program, Duhamel said.

The board’s rate of return on investments should justify a cost-of-living increase, said at-large City Councilor Bob Salvatelli.

“With that kind of impressive return we’re making off this thing, and not giving retirees a 3 percent raise, is criminal,” Salvatelli said. “It’s not even funny; it’s criminal.”

According to city estimates, giving retirees a 3 percent cost-of-living increase would cost the city $145,000 up front and would cost $900,000 over the life of the retirees who received it.

Retirees Grapple With Tough Question: Should Pension Payments Be Taken Monthly Or As Lump Sum?

retirement fund

Many people facing retirement ask their financial advisor the same question: is it more advantageous to receive a pension in monthly payments or to take the entire pension as a lump sum to be put in an IRA?

There are big implications attached to either option. And the stakes are high; once you opt for a monthly payment there is no reversing course. As advisor Kevin McKinley writes:

Once the client submits the request to receive the monthly pension payments, there is no turning back. He or she can’t change the time and beneficiary calculation options down the road, and it’s virtually impossible to get an “advance” on future payments.

That could be a problem in several instances, including a need to cover a large emergency expense, the desire to help out a family member, or the emergence of a more attractive investment opportunity.

A big part of the decision to take monthly payments should be how confident you feel in your pension fund’s investment portfolio. A retiree, or his/her financial advisor, might be able to construct an investment portfolio that makes the retiree more comfortable taking the lump sum:

Since the portfolio has to be managed on behalf of thousands of recipients, plus other interested parties, it’s a safe bet that the pension plan’s managers will have to make decisions that may go against what individual clients would like done with their portion of the money.

You can probably tailor a portfolio that is better aligned with the client’s needs and risk tolerance. You certainly can design and manage one that is much more flexible and transparent than if it were left in the pension.

And then there are the tax implications that come with both options, as McKinley writes:

A pension payment is generally going to be fully taxable as ordinary income. But if the funds are instead rolled over into an IRA, the client has several opportunities to reduce his income tax bill each year.

He can take just enough to keep him under a particular federal income tax bracket. Or, he can roll over some (or all) of the account into a Roth IRA, paying the taxes now to hopefully reduce what he pays down the road.

Another option is to take nothing at all and avoid the taxes completely for the time being. The client will likely have to take required minimum distributions after reaching age 70½, but those won’t greatly exceed what a pension payment might otherwise be.

The article notes that, when it comes down to it, retirees need to ask themselves two questions: Are they confident their pension is going to exist as long as they’ll need it?

And, are they confident in their pension fund’s ability to invest and manage their money?

If a retiree lacks confidence in both of those questions, perhaps a lump sum would offer better peace of mind.

For Chicago, Property Taxes Still A No-Go As City Turns Elsewhere to Fix Pension Pains

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Source: The Chicago Tribune and Morningstar

In Chicago, property taxes are among the most politically unpalatable ideas one can bring to the table.

But Illinois law requires the city to dramatically increase its payments to its two major pension funds to the tune of $500 million by 2016. In the past, the city has levied property taxes a year or two in advance of the payments in order to fund the required contribution.

One glance at Chicago mayor Rahm Emanuel’s actions of late, however, confirms that property taxes remain off the table. Tasked with improving the fiscal health of the city’s pension systems, Emanuel is exhausting all his policy options—without turning to property tax increases.

From the Chicago Tribune:

Since taking office in 2011, Emanuel has cut the size of the city workforce, reduced health care costs and found other efficiencies, like organizing garbage collection by grids rather than a ward-by-ward basis.

The mayor also has increased a host of fees, fines and taxes. He’s held the line on property tax hikes at City Hall, though Chicago Public Schools has increased them under his tenure. Some revenues, like real estate property taxes, sales taxes and income taxes, have rebounded slightly as the economy has slowly improved.

Emanuel previously declined to identify any way to come up with additional city revenue for the city worker and laborers funds until he had worked out an overall pension change plan this spring that lowered annual cost-of-living increases for retirees and boosted employee pension contributions. He’s taking the same approach to police and fire pensions by declining to discuss additional revenue before an overall pension change plan is worked out.

Pension360 covered earlier this week a hike in telephone fees that will net the city $50 million this year and next.

Still, Chicago’s budget gap is projected to be around $297 million in 2015. With the $500+ million pension payment looming as well, the pressure is mounting and Chicago officials may have to make some politically unpopular decisions.

City officials can still change their minds and hike property taxes—but the deadline to do so is last Tuesday of December 2015.

Unions Rev Up New Appeal In New Jersey Pension Case – Read the Full Complaint Here

640px-New_Jersey_State_House

Unions lost the first round in the pension case playing out in New Jersey, when a judge ruled last week that New Jersey was too cash-strapped to make its full contribution to the pension system. The state instead diverted that money, totaling over $800 million, towards balancing the state budget.

Unions were hoping, and still are, for a court ruling that would reverse state Gov. Chris Christie’s decision to divert that money.

To that end, attorneys for the labor groups amended their court filings on Wednesday to update their argument that Christie broke the law when he slashed the state’s pension contribution.

The contribution, unions argue, was legally required due to a law that Christie himself signed in 2011. From the Asbury Park Press:

The updated court filings are a step toward a new hearing, expected in August, and fuller vetting of the issue by Jacobson, who said claims about the 2015 budget and pension payments needed time to become “ripe.” Christie made changes in the new budget days after Jacobson’s prior ruling.

 
“The amended filings reflect the fact that the governor didn’t make the full 2014 payment and made his changes in the 2015 budget,” said NJEA spokesman Steve Baker. “Other than that, there’s no substantive difference in the arguments we’ve had all along.”

 
Christie spokesman Kevin Roberts pointed to the Republican governor’s past comments on the court case, when Christie called the spending cut “one of the hard choices the people of New Jersey expect me to make.”

 
“For our state’s families who are already overburdened by high taxes, raising taxes even further would not solve a problem created by decades of neglect and irresponsibility,” Christie also said.

 
The unions will have to make a stronger argument to Jacobson about Christie’s ability as governor to set fiscal priorities for such things as hospitals, nursing homes, tuition aid and other programs. In the June court hearing, the unions also failed to force Christie to turn $300 million from state surplus as a down payment on the shorted pensions. “The governor determined it would be extremely unwise to not maintain that amount,” Jacobson told the lawyers for the plaintiffs.

 

Read the full complaint here:

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Photo: “New Jersey State House” by Marion Touvel  Licensed under Public domain via Wikimedia Commons