Oakland officials bracing for pension plan funding disaster

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In 1997, then-city officials in Oakland, California had a great idea that would take them off the hook for 15 years of pension contributions for some of its public-employee pension plans. City leaders issued a 15-year bond at a low interest rate, and invested the proceeds to potentially earn a higher rate, using the earnings to pay annual fund contributions.

Now sources say, the investments were poorly managed, and only earned an average of 4 percent annually, instead of the 8 percent that officials expected. Instead of helping its finances, the city owes $46 million that comes due on July 1.

An actuarial study commissioned by City Auditor Courtney Ruby determined that the city lost more than $250 million by issuing the bonds rather than paying the contributions as they became due.

To make matters worse, in addition to the pension bond disaster, the city is also facing a $40 million deficit on its $400 million general fund budget.

While some officials, including Councilman and finance chair Ignacio De La Fuente and City Attorney John Russo, want to rein in spending to make ends meet, others in City Hall prefer to simply issue another bond, and push the problem off for another five years.

According to the San Francisco Chronicle:

Issuing a new pension bond with another five-year holiday could have severe consequences for the future, according to Ruby.

Even if the city gets a 7 percent return on pension fund investments during a five-year holiday, the city would have to pay out $42 million to $28 million a year from the General Fund between 2017 and 2023, according to Ruby’s report. In the last years of paying back the pension bond’s obligations from 2024 to 2026 – half a century after the last eligible employee would have been hired – the city would have to pay more than $150 million per year from the General Fund.

The bonds are tied to a specific city pension plan for police and firefighters with unusually generous provisions – even by today’s standards. It provides that a retiree’s benefits are not tied to their salary when they retired, but to a salary as if they were retiring today.

For example, a police captain who retired in 1975 would receive 68 percent of the pay of a currently employed police captain in 2011- holiday pay and shift adjustments included. Currently, 1125 retirees and beneficiaries are participants in the plan.

Mayor Jean Quan is said to be favoring a plan that would have the city pay only $5 million per year into the plan for the next five years, and then increase payments when its finances are in better shape. However, Russo thinks the figure should be $20 million per year.

“People say, we should be paying this when times are better, but the problem is that when times are better, nobody pays this down,” he said. “If they roll this over again, there is no scenario I can see where they’ll be able to pay this back in 2024.”

San Francisco Chronicle

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Pension reporting legislation would force States to declare massive liabilities

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Rep. Devin Nunes (R-Ca.) wants states to calculate their pension shortfalls more conservatively.

New legislation that would force states to report more accurate unfunded pension liabilities is being pushed by House Republicans, according to the Wall Street Journal.

The Public Employee Pension Transparency Act was introduced on Feb.9 by California Rep. Devin Nunes, and would require states and municipalities to report more accurately on the financial health of public-employee pension funds. Under proposed rules, most states would be forced to report even larger funding deficits than already disclosed.


If passed, the law would require that states provide a more conservative calculation on investment earnings, which they now typically estimate at 8 percent per annum. Under new rules, a second calculation would be conducted using a 4 percent investment earnings assumption. Private companies generally use a 6 percent factor.

States would be required to file annual reports with the Treasury on the status of their funds. Failing to do so would cost them their ability to issue tax-exempt bonds which they rely on for infrastructure and other projects.

The bond-rating agency, Moody’s Investor Service, expressed support for the legislation, saying it “would provide new incentives to state and local governments to take action to ensure public-employee pension plans’ long-term viability.”

Predictably, state government officials expressed opposition for the legislation.

“Transparency is not the issue here,” said Jeffrey Esser, executive director for the Government Finance Officers Association. “The effort is designed to make public-employee pension plans look bad.”

The legislation would also explicitly ban the federal government and the Federal Reserve from bailing out insolvent public pension plans. Although states and municipalities contend they are not looking for the federal government to do so, Illinois Gov. Pat Quinn’s recent proposed budget plan suggested that the state may consider “seeking a federal guarantee of the debt” to help stabilize its massively underfunded plans.

Republicans hope the bail-out provision will prevent states from counting on the feds to step in to prop up sick pension funds. “You still need to put that policy out there so that the states know that there’s not going to be any bailouts coming,” said Mr. Nunes.  “We don’t want to get in a position to where people even think that that’s an option.”

The Pew Center on the States recently calculated state and local pension plans had unfunded balances of $1 trillion based on 2008 data, although some sources estimate the shortfall is now closer to $3 trillion.

The Wall Street Journal

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Pension perk granted by California legislature, now under fire

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A little-know pension benefit used by tens of thousands of state workers annually, has bubbled up to the top of a list of pension abuses under fire for contributing to a skyrocketing unfunded pension liability.

The benefit, called “air time” allows workers to purchase up to five additional years of fictitious work time, in order to retire early, or receive a larger retirement benefits as if they had worked for a longer period.

The employees pay a fee to purchase the additional years of service, although critics say the amount isn’t enough, especially when a pension fund’s investment earnings are lower than projected – an increasingly common occurrence.

Last September, officials discovered that state actuaries priced the benefit so low, they increased buy-in payments by 17 percent to 38 percent, depending on the job classification.

The Los Angeles Times reports that benefit was bestowed on all state employees in 2003 by the legislature, which was intending to help its own staffers who took time off to run their bosses election campaigns. After then-Gov. Gray Davis vetoed the bill in 2002, lawmakers pushed through legislation the following year, this time making all state workers eligible for the perk.

The unusual benefit does not exist in private businesses with their employees’ retirement plans. Instead, those wishing to do something similar must purchase an annuity, which pays a return of 3 percent, less than half as much as the 7 to 8 percent guaranteed air time benefit provides.

Pension benefits are determined by multiplying a small percentage – usually 1.2 to 3 percent – times the number of years that an employee has worked and applying that percentage against the final year’s income. If an employee’s deal provided for a 2 percent factor, and worked 30 years in government, then a $100,000 final salary would yield a $60,000 annual pension benefit for life.

In an example given by the Times, a 55-year old employee who purchased 5 years of air time for $124,000 would get another $9,840 for life, and break even on the investment at age 67. According to actuarial tables, that employee could expect to live to 83 years if a male, and 86 if a female.

One investment advisor, Scott Hanson of Sacramento-based Hanson McClain, said he almost always advises government workers to purchase the extra years. Even after the recent price increase, “It’s still a tremendous benefit,” he said.

Los Angeles Times

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San Diego judge allows transfer of pension overcharging case to L.A. despite city’s objection

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A lawsuit filed by the San Diego city attorney against its pension system will be transferred to another venue, according to a ruling by San Diego Superior Court Judge Joan Lewis.

The transfer was sought by the San Diego City Employees Retirement System and local labor unions because they felt that the recent damaging stories in the local press about alleged abuses in the pension system would prevent them from getting a fair trial.

The city tried to stop the transfer saying the request was not made timely, and only for the purpose of delaying the trial. The case was originally scheduled to begin on April 29 in San Diego.

City Attorney Jan Goldsmith brought the lawsuit last May, based on an interpretation of the city charter requiring that workers and the city contribute “substantially equal” amounts into the employees pension plan.

The lawsuit claims that the city has been overcharged by tens of millions of dollars each year by pension system officials.

“In light of the constant media attention that San Diego’s pension funding has received, we believe it is prudent to change venues to ensure a fair trial and we’re very pleased that Judge Lewis agreed with our position,” pension official Mark Hovey said.

Goldsmith told the San Diego Union-Tribune that “The labor unions and their supporters see this case as such a threat that they pulled out all the stops to delay, confuse and bury it — anything to avoid a decision on the merits.”

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Report shows every Chicago resident owes $12,000 for pension liability

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A report set to be released today by the Chicago Civic Federation, shows that the massive unfunded pension liability of the city and county’s 10 public pension plans has reached nearly $23 billion. That amount, plus Chicago’s share of the state’s unfunded pension liability, adds up to a total of $11,934 owed by every man, woman and child in Chicago.

Ten years ago, the combined city and state unfunded pension liability amounted to $2,442, only one-sixth the current amount.

The report from the Civic Federation comes to the same conclusions as a series of stories reported in the Chicago Tribune in November about the massive debt owed by city residents and taxpayers.

In 2000, eight of the 10 pension funds, were funded over an 80 percent level; now, eight have fallen below 60 percent. Despite the precarious position of the funds, only recently has pension reform become an urgent issue with Illinois Gov. Pat Quinn and the legislature.

The two funds that were above the 60 percent funding level in 2009 are the Chicago Transit Authority and the city’s labor union.  The only reason the CTA was above that level was because of an emergency infusion by the state in 2008 to keep the plan from becoming insolvent.

The Civic Federation blamed the deficits on the Illinois pension code, which allows the state and local governments to avoid having to pay in actuarial –determined contributions each year.

Making the problem worse are the steady increases in benefits, early retirements incentives and the weak economy. The ratio of active to retired workers has also decreased by 75 percent since 2000, meaning that as more retired workers need to be paid, fewer workers are paying into the system.

Even though the funds have experienced large investment gains over the last year, there is no way that investment performance can restore the funds to solvency.

The only two options are raising taxes, or sharply cutting back on retiree benefits. So far, politicians seem to prefer taking the risk of angering the public by suggesting hikes in property and income taxes, instead of incurring the wrath of the public employee unions.

Information from: Chicago Tribune

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New Jersey Republicans advance pension reform initiatives

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A plan supported by Gov. Chris Christie to reform the state’s troubled public pension system was introduced on Monday in the New Jersey House by Republican Assemblymen Declan O’Scanlon and Gary Chiusano, with Sen. Joseph Pennacchio planning to introduce the same measures in the Senate.

“The system in its present form is unworkable which is a major concern for every resident in the state,” O’Scanlon said. “This legislation will provide comprehensive and substantive improvements to save the system and protect taxpayers. If continue on our present course, public employees will lose their pensions and beleaguered taxpayers will face crushing tax increases.”

“There are several major public policies which need to be reformed in order to make New Jersey more affordable, and the public pension program is one of them,” Chiusano said. “The plan is grossly underfunded and will collapse without far-reaching systemic improvements. By enacting these measures, we will stabilize the state’s pension contribution at a manageable level and ensure its long-term viability. These reforms will ease the burden on taxpayers and strengthen the pension system for our public employees.”

If no changes are made to the current system, O’Scanlon and Chiusana said that the current unfunded liability of $54 billion will balloon to over $180 billion by 2041.

Under the sweeping proposal, future employees would be mostly affected by the 139-page bill.  The highlights include:

  • The retirement age would be raised to 65 for most employees, reflecting an increase in life expectancy. To retire early, workers would be required to have worked 30 years, instead of the current 25.
  • Workers would be required to contribute 8.5 percent of their salaries towards retirement.
  • Pensions would be calculated on employees’ earnings from their five highest-paid years, up from the current three.
  • Firefighters and police would have the maximum pension benefit reduced from 70 percent of their current salaries to 65 percent.
  • Cost of living increases would be eliminated.
  • The 9 percent pension increase given to workers in 2001 would be eliminated for current and future employees.

Two weeks ago, Democrat Senate President Stephen Sweeney proposed a bill that stopped short of the Republican’s bill.

Sweeney’s bill would replace the present oversight boards of the public employees, teachers, police and firefighter pension systems with joint boards of management and labor organizations. The boards would oversee the management of the pension funds and have the power to adjust annual contributions and benefits based on the investment performance of the funds.

The plan would require workers to make additional pension contributions if the wanted to take advantage of the 9 percent pension increase given in 2001.

Workers with fewer than five years of employment would not receive cost-of-living adjustments, unless the board found some way to pay for it.

Sweeney said “This legislation will remove politics from the process and establish a private-sector model for the pension system. This will be comprehensive reform that will ensure that those who benefit from the pension fund are paying their fair share without adding any additional burden to already overtaxed taxpayers in New Jersey.”

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Pittsburgh city council passes $737.7 million parking tax to avert pension fund takeover

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After years of attempting to make sense of the city’s financial predicament with its employees’ massively unfunded pension plan, the city council passed a 37.5 percent parking tax ordinance, and passed on its proceeds to the plan for the next 31 years. The city council’s action beat a state-imposed deadline by only 8 hours.

Pittsburgh's city council passed a $737.7 million parking tax that will be collected from taxpayers not yet born. Even after doing so, its employee pension plan is only one-half funded.

The city council and Mayor Luke Ravenstahl had been battling for months over the best way to avert the state’s takeover of the pension plan, which could have occurred as early as Jan 1. The state of Pennsylvania requires that retirement plans be at least 50 percent funded; Pittsburgh’s was only 29.3 percent funded at the end of the third quarter. A consultant’s report said the plan has about $325 million in assets to cover about $1 billion in benefits that the city promised its workers.

If the state were to take over the plan, it would require an onerous payment plan to bring plan balances to a fully-funded level. The city feared that the state would immediately order it to double its $46 million contribution to the plan by 2015, and raise it to $160 million by 2030. Under the state’s supervision and funding requirements, the city would be severely constrained in its ability to provide even the most basic city services.

Two months ago, Ravenstahl floated a plan that would lease the city’s parking facilities for 50 years to a private operator, raising $452 million. The city council rejected that proposal.

Normally, the only method to increase the balance in a pension fund is by the deposit of monies.  The executive director of Public Employees Retirement Commission, James McAney, has said that he would approve the deposit of another form of “value”, in this case, a dedicated income stream from the parking tax imposed on residents.

Even after the vote, officials won’t know if the plan will be enough to keep the state from taking over the plan. Actuaries will need several months to calculate if the fund balances will rise to 50 percent, after the infusion of the parking tax.

Even after imposing the outsized tax, bringing the fund’s balance to the required 50 percent level means that the city will only have reserved one-half the monies it promised its police, firefighters and city workers, and that more tax hikes and service reductions will be needed in the future.

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