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Joe Azzarito: Council needs to “serve notice to all city employees that as of a determinable date they will be paying the full cost of their ‘silver spoon’ pensions”

30 Mar

Joe Azzarito is a retired accountant who lives in Chico. Here’s a letter he recently sent to the city of Chico regarding the Tax-a-rama council has embarked upon since a “conservative” Super Majority took over in January. Thanks Joe, I hope this email inspires other people to express their outrage with this obvious ploy to leave the taxpayers holding the Pension Deficit Bag.

To all Chico city councilors and Senior City Staff:

The topics of municipal revenue enhancements, namely a sales tax increase and pension obligation bonds keep surfacing in the course of discourse and analysis by concerned citizens such as myself

Now why would that be? Could it be that you all are not listening to your constituents demands that these disastrously wrong ill conceived options, for funding the massive unfunded pension obligations that this city has forced upon its citizens, be abandoned? Whenever I read or hear about these plans of enduring us to untold costs to fund city staff’s, be they unionized or not, exorbitant salaries and pensions, it makes my blood boil. Your dark of the night surreptitious intents, without transparency, to enact either of these programs is a dereliction of duty, maybe not to your sponsors, the unions, or your fellow colleagues, but certainly to your constituents – the people that pay your salary through taxes. 

I have heard that programs such as these can be implemented, without the consent of the voters. How dare you! It is not enough to seek input from us but for us to approve of these wild schemes fraught with danger. Given that the ruling class of Chico earns far and away much more than the median income of the people of Chico, you have the gall to push these down our throats.

 For those on the council, recently elected and those previously, you are not conservatives, in the slightest sense fiscally. You all seem to some how, symbiotically, look after each other’s tail. Unions give you campaign funds so that you can win elected office. In turn, you fulfill their needs by ensuring their members are well paid. Wherein do the citizens fit into your scenario? Oh, yes, we are to fill the city coffers with the funds you promised your benefactors. Our needs lay at the bottom of a very deep hole, somehow they are only minimally attended to. It shouldn’t be that way! We should come first as it is our sweat and toil that makes it all possible. 

I have spoken many times of the badly written about California Rule that keeps you from “doing the right thing” – that being to serve notice to all city employees that as of a determinable date they will be paying the full cost of their “silver spoon” pensions and that salary structures must be revised, downward, to allow the city to adequately meets its obligations to its citizens, first. Promises, previously made in prior eras when economic conditions were much more rosier than now, need to be upended. It would necessitate that pay scales, merit raises, benefits, including pensions, be approved by a body, inclusive of a citizenry board, and not by the likes of City Manager, his staff and/or City Council. To keep the decision making in their hands alone is why these financial problems came about in the first place. Those that pay the salaries should be the ones deciding, not so now. To have city staff analyzing, recommending and being on the receiving end of the decisions made is tantamount to “conflict of interest. 

At the very least a referendum should be devised and agreed to by vote of the electorate on all of the above. The unfunded elephant in the room must be sequestered and controlled. CALPERS should be informed of any changes and any separations be established. The pensions of all covered city employees would need to be renegotiated, with the stipulation that staff would be paying the full load of costs.  Any conflict with current law needs to be assessed and corrected. It is high time that city pay the piper his due!

 Respectfully, Joe Azzarito  

Kenny Rogers: You got to know when to hold ’em, and know when to fold ’em. Too bad we can’t get Kenny Rogers to run our city finances

19 Mar

The worst thing about Pension Obligation Bonds is that the proceeds would be gambled on the stock market. The assumption is that the investments would pay both the bond service and the pension deficit.  How nuts is that?

I’ve heard various analogies – taking a credit card to the casino, taking a second mortgage on your house to pay the first mortgage, paying your credit card with your other credit card, etc. Of course people do all these things, and we’ve seen what happens to them. We’ve watched neighbors, friends, even family members lose it all in gambits like that, and we’ve shaken our heads and wondered how they could be so stupid.  How is it suddenly prudent just because it’s a government agency doing the dumb thing? 

They will tell us they know what they’re doing, just like CalPERS told the governor and all the state agencies that they knew what they were doing. They don’t. 

The consultant who pitched this horror story in the making to the Chico City Council said the key would be to borrow the bond money at a rate of 3 – 4% interest. He speculated that money would make a good enough return on the market to pay that rate, and then some for the pension fund. But he made it clear, constantly, that a “downturn” in the market would be a very bad thing – then the city would owe both the bond money and the pension payments, both with interest. 

The difference between those two debts, as reported by the consultant, is that CalPERS won’t dump us for not being able to make our full payments, our “obligation”. As long as we pay SOMETHING, they will keep on paying out the crazy pension payments. In fact, each agency negotiates their own deal with CalPERS and sets the employee contributions.  Of course, if they don’t pay enough, the debt grows, with interest – that creates the Unfunded Actuarial Liability, or, the “pension deficit”. 

On the other hand, a Pension Obligation Bond has to be paid, in regular installments, or the bond holders can demand either the back payments or the entire debt, on the spot.  This means, they could empty the General Fund, and every other fund the city holds, except the Pension Stabilization Trust. The PST is the only truly, legally restricted fund the city has established. All other funds, from the streets fund to the park fund to the sewer fund and on, are available for allocation to the General Fund. 

The proponents keep trying to tell us this is a fool proof scheme. They won’t acknowledge the fact that the market can turn ugly on a dime. Really ugly. Pension systems around the country are making some really desperate, stupid investments, according to this article from the Reason Foundation. 

 
In the United States, public pension funds, which have an average investment return target of 7.25 percent, will likely struggle to meet those investment targets and could be severely impacted by plummeting interest rates. Without changes to pension plans’ assumed rates of return, many public pension systems will see an increase in debt.

Unfortunately, many public pension plan managers are not interested in adjusting their investment return targets to realistic levels at this time. Instead, they are seeking riskier, potentially higher-yielding investments in an effort to make up for depressed interest rates and hit their targets.

What’s super frustrating is the double talk. Our mayor, Andrew Coolidge, acknowledges that CalPERS is doing horribly, but tries to assure us that our staff can pull of successful investments. In this market? 

According to this article, government agencies’ share of the UAL is about to go up again, due to risky investments. For example, “New Mexico’s Educational Retirement Board (ERB), which serves the state’s teachers, is one such plan that dedicates roughly a quarter of its portfolio to fixed-income assets. Within New Mexico ERB’s fixed income-investment allocation, 7 percent of funds go to emerging market debt, which is essentially sovereign bonds issued by countries classified by the World Bank as lower-to-middle-income to upper-middle-income. This includes countries such as Brazil, India, and Nigeria.”

“Even though emerging market debt carries much higher yields that are attractive to pension funds, those benefits can be outweighed by enormous risks since several of these countries have defaulted on their debt in the past. Due to this risk, public pension investment allocations to emerging market debt have historically been used sparingly in pension fund portfolios. However, in recent months, pension fund managers have signaled a growing appetite for allocating more assets to this asset class.”

As more pension funds take on these risky investments, more will fail, debt will increase, and be passed on to government agencies. In California, CalPERS has a horrible record of corruption, with various board members leaving in disgrace over manipulating the public trust to their own gain. Most recently an investments advisor left after he was found to be using CalPERS funds to buy stock in funds he owned. CalPERS is also floundering under huge board member salaries – here’s a thought – CalPERS has it’s own pension deficit.

Instead of screaming for investigations and reform, I think those public employees who stand to get pensions are getting desperate to make sure the pension systems are funded.  I just can’t decide whether our council members are being led by the nose or if they are coming to the table knowing exactly what they are doing. 

What do you think?

Why we need to dump collective bargaining – to end the union domination of California – and Chico! – politics

17 Mar

Thanks Dave, for this great article from David Crane:

https://www.hoover.org/research/bipartisan-opportunism-blame-californias-high-tax-rate

Crane gives us the history of collective bargaining in California, “which endowed police and other local personnel with the power to bargain collectively with the governments that employed them, handing political power over local budgets to government employees who were the principal beneficiaries of those budgets…”

Established by Ronald Reagan in 1968, this agreement “created a piggy bank to help finance GOP legislators.” But of course, it works for whichever party is in power, son when he became governor in 1975, Jerry Brown extended this agreement to school teachers and employees. This has resulted in elections controlled not by the Russians or the Iranians but by the public employee unions.

In Chico the biggest contributors in every election are the SEIU (management) and the CPOA (cops), with the IFFA (firefighters) coming in a close third.

In my opinion, this relationship is completely inappropriate – council approves hires, salaries, and benefits, sets staffing levels, and then accepts huge campaign contributions from the very people who benefit from their actions. I can’t believe the voters don’t see the conflict of interest in this system, but I’m guessing, most people don’t know. Everybody’s got their panties in a knot over the notion that Russia and Iran have influenced elections, but they don’t see corruption that is as plain as the nose on their faces. 

So City of Chico and County of Butte, both of whom have outrageous pension deficits, are considering Pension Obligation Bonds. This action would forever place the burden of the pension deficit – created by the ridiculous salaries, overly-generous benefits, and completely unrealistically low employee contributions approved by our “local leaders” – on the backs of the taxpayers. 

Instead, I suggest we dump collective bargaining – this could be done by city ordinance, and could be accomplished by a petition of citizens. Another option would be a city ordinance that cut the union PAC donations down to the same level as individual donations – about $1,000 per candidate. 

Crane agrees on point #1 – “The antidotes are to repeal collective bargaining rights for government employees or to offset these voters’ power with persistent support of our political parties from donors who care about the general interest (full disclosure: Govern for California provides such support), not to whine about one-party dominance.

Right now, as Doug Ose has said, “we are going backwards” as a state. Over-taxation has made housing too expensive, while infrastructure all over the state is failing. Chico Mayor Andrew Coolidge acknowledges the poor condition of streets in Chico, but advocates a POB, which would suck all the money out of the General Fund, which is made from allocations out of all the other funds – the streets fund, the park fund, the sewer fund, etc. You get the picture every time you drive or bike around town, or open your new sewer bill. Did you get the picture last night when council voted to INSTITUTE A FEE FOR USE OF UPPER PARK? 

Wake the hell up Chico, and write a note to your mayor – that’s andrew.coolidge@chicoca.gov

Who will pay the unfunded liability? Taxpayers living on a median income of $43,000/year, or well-paid, well-heeled, entitled public employees making over $100,000/year?

5 Nov

It’s been said, the campaign begins the day after an election.  I like to hit the ground running. Here’s a letter I just sent to the ER. 

Butte County, like the city of Chico, is considering a Pension Obligation Bond.

POBs are a financing scheme that allows state and local governments to get the taxpayers to pay unfunded pension liabilities by issuing a bond guaranteed by tax revenues. Like CalPERS, POB proponents claim investments will pay for both the bond and the retirement fund. According to Oregon PERS manager Mike Cleary, “Some people call this arbitrage, but it’s not, it’s really an investment gamble.”

In fact, in 2013, Stockton and San Bernardino went bankrupt. According to the court, “Generous pensions awkwardly propped up with ill-timed POBs contributed to both debacles.”

In recent years, returns on POBs have often fallen below the interest rate paid by agencies to borrow the money, digging the liability hole even deeper. Nonetheless, they remain popular because they are instant money without voter approval.

Chico’s Unfunded Pension Liability has grown enormously over the past year – from $123,000,000 to $140,000,000, with another $146,000,000 interest – because of unrealistic employee contributions. Chico employees pay, at most, 15% for pensions that run from 70 – 90% percent of hundred-thousand-plus salaries. Meanwhile, taxpayers not only contribute a payroll share, but the annual “catch-up” payments come at the expense of city services – this year $11,000,000.

Who will pay the unfunded liability? Taxpayers living on a median income of $43,000/year, or well-paid, well-heeled, entitled public employees making over $100,000/year?

Let your elected representative know what you think of this scheme to leave the taxpayers holding the Pension Deficit Bag.

Juanita Sumner, Chico

Chico’s Unfunded Pension Liability – the 8,000 pound gorilla in the room that none of the candidates want to talk about

13 Sep

As Dave reminded us yesterday, “the 8,000 pound gorilla in the room” that nobody will talk about in this election is the Unfunded Pension Liability (UAL).

The UAL has been created and perpetuated by the tiny shares that employees pay toward their own pensions – they pay less than 15% but expect to get 70 – 90% in retirement. That only works if somebody picks up the other 80 – 90%. They expect us to be that somebody, and I’m saying, NO!

And while the city manager claims repeatedly that “staff” has not had raises “for years”, the new police chief just got $21,000 more a year than the old police chief. Chico police officers get automatic raises, they are on a “step increase” plan. They also get to “cash out” unused overtime, sick and vacation days on a formula that actually pays them more not to work. They also use these cash-outs to “spike” their salaries and therefor their pensions.  Look at their contracts here:

https://www.chico.ca.us/post/labor-agreements

Finance manager Dowell told me, in August 2019, that city employees pay between 9.75 and 15% of their pension cost, depending on their union group. See, the city manager negotiates these contracts with each group, and then the council just rubberstamps them. It’s time for council to do some of the negotiating. And that means, we have to hold a candle to their rear-end.

Other towns are actually cutting salaries, Chico is not only raising salaries but creating new positions – the new Public Information Officer and another management position for Public Works. This is like throwing gas on the UAL fire. Another thing that goes up automatically every year is the UAL “catch up” payment.  Finance director Scott Dowell just paid almost $10 million to CalPERS. And next year he says it will be over $11 million.

Here are questions for your district candidate:

  1. What is the UAL?  (answer: Unfunded Actuarial Liability, or pension deficit)
  2. How much is Chico’s current UAL?  (the last figure I have from Scott Dowell is $128 million, I believe it’s now over $130 million)
  3. How much money did Scott Dowell just pay toward the UAL in July of this year? (over $9 million)
  4. What are the various shares paid by different employee groups? (between 9.75 and 15%, depending on employee group)

These are terms any council member or candidate should know and understand, since they agree to all this stuff when they roll over the contracts every year. If they don’t, it’s a deal breaker as far as I’m concerned, they should not be in office.  The main reason we are currently in financial trouble is ignorance of these terms. 

So don’t let the candidates tell us what the issues are in this election – don’t let them distract you with pictures of bum camps and trash piles.  Tell them, the issue is the UAL, and who is going to pay it. 

These public agencies need to clean house before we should even consider revenue measures

15 Apr

Oh for cripe’s sake, another letter from the Measure A people. Like a friend of mine has observed, they are still really mad they didn’t get this measure past the voters. I was hoping they’d just stomp their foot and disappear through the floor, but you can bet they’ll be back in 2022.

Letter: Reflecting on the failure of Measure A

By  |

Great and timely article in the Sunday, April 5 Enterprise Record regarding “No Sports.” For those of us who sports and athletics is such a large part of our lives it is hard to not get our daily “Sports Fix.” We know professional, collegiate, high school and other amateur sports will resume as we recover from this COVID-19 Virus. Our hearts go out to those directly infected with the virus and all of us indirectly affected by staying home and not participating in work or athletic activities. It is a good time to reflect on why Measure A failed and how to move our local recreation and sports programs forward.

In the beginning I was in favor of Measure A. Over the course of the campaign I changed my opinion that the measure would fulfill our facility and program needs. There are too many reasons to cite in 250 words for the failure. No sunset and a CPI were two along with few specifics on what facilities were needed and would be provided by the parcel tax if passed. CARD ignored half of the electorate when they planned the measure.

We need to analyze what facilities are really needed and what programs need to be re-energized and focused on. The October 2018 facilities assessment study should have done this but did not. It was an overall marketing study of the amateur sports market with two of the three proposals being private/public partnerships with no explanation by CARD.

— Terry Cleland, Chico

Cleland is right about the the “no sunset” and annual increase with the Consumer Price Index – the measure was bad. He is also right about the lack of specifics – the measure promised nothing, except more revenues for CARD to spend as they pleased.

But he left out the bond measure – General Manager Ann Willmann admitted several times that the parcel tax proceeds were not nearly enough to pay for any of the over-the-rainbow projects mentioned in the Measure A campaign. Willmann said they would use the parcel tax proceeds to secure a $30-something-million bond, the debt service for which would have cost $2 million a year while only providing $1 million for projects. A million dollars a year? Let me put that into perspective – several years ago, the city of Chico spent a million dollars “upgrading” the public restroom at One Mile. Get it? 

Cleland also neglected to mention the pension deficit, or the fact that a simple majority measure goes into the General Fund, to be spent at the pleasure of the board and staff. He wouldn’t admit – the salaries and pensions at CARD are not sustainable, that they have bottomed out the General Fund to pay down the deficit created by their employees’ unrealistic and unreasonable “shares”. Willmann admitted many times they had deferred maintenance while paying their pensions.  

I feel Cleland is trying to nudge the conversation away from the fact that CARD is poorly managed and is not fulfilling their mission statement. 

Cleland attended CARD General Manager Ann Willmann’s “informational” propaganda sessions. He heard her tell the group that CARD is without debt, and he sat right behind Dave Howell as he corrected Willmann. Howell quoted the latest figure on CARD’s Unfunded Pension Liability as $2.7 million, because that was the figure Willmann had recently given the Enterprise Record. She admitted to him and the rest of us that it is actually over $3 million. How does it grow so fast? Because, only 5 years ago, agency management was paying NOTHING toward their own pensions. CARD was paying, in total, less than 10% of the cost. These agencies have put off paying the pensions, because they expect the taxpayers to foot it. 

As of 2017 Willmann was only paying 2.5% of the cost of her pension, with an annual salary increase, that’s why CARD’s deficit is growing so quickly. As of 2019, she was paying 8%, with another salary increase, up to $127,000/year. 

If you want to see the consequences of this kind of pyramid scheme, read the latest CalPERS “actuarial valuation report” for CARD.

https://www.calpers.ca.gov/page/employers/actuarial-services/employer-contributions/public-agency-actuarial-valuation-reports

Just type “Chico Area Recreation District” into the search engine.

Look at what CalPERs will expect CARD to pay in “catch up” payments within the next few years – and then remember, the taxpayers pay ALL OF IT, in addition to half the payroll contribution. 

And here’s another lie Willmann floated to the public during her little propaganda blitz – she said that CARD has no control over the shares or amounts they pay to CalPERS. “this needs to be handled at the CalPERS level and the legislative level…” she lied. 

Here’s two holes in that lie – 

  1. If it’s out of the agency’s hands what they pay to CalPERS, why are the city of Chico and CARD’s payments so radically different? CARD pays 14%, while the city of Chico pays 21 – 31%.  You can see the city even negotiates different payments for different employee groups, as well as very different shares per employee group. 
  2. According to the report linked above, “The employer contributions in this report do not reflect any cost sharing arrangements you may have with your employees.”  There’s the truth – Willmann told the public at those sessions that the board doesn’t have any control over the shares. Liar. 

Okay, here’s where it gets even murkier – Willmann claimed in those sessions that her 8% was more than half of the agency’s cost – she bragged about that repeatedly.   But, when I asked her, in front of the rest of the group, why the city and CARD pay totally different percentages, she would not answer me in the meeting, saying she needed to check her figures. No, it was because she didn’t want to tell the others the truth – her 8% is not MORE THAN half of what the agency pays, it’s not even half.  She admitted to me via email later, the agency pays 17%.   “ The Total Normal Cost is then split in to the Employee Contribution Rate and the Employer Normal Cost Rate. I was incorrect regarding our Total Normal Cost, it is currently 17.127% for our classic members not 14%.”

Why did she tell everybody else CARD only pays 14%? Obviously, Willmann knows the truth, she knows she pays less than half, but misleads the public, because it’s in her best interest to do so. 

 And, here’s the real pig sticker – the taxpayers not only pay over half the payroll portion, but make the entire “catch up” payments on the resulting Unfunded Accrued Liability. 

So, in answer to Mr. Cleland, I’ll say, before I would even consider a revenue measure for this sad little agency, I would demand the following (and this is just for starters) :

  1. new general manager 
  2. Tom Lando off the board
  3. ratify a new agreement with employees that they work toward paying more of the agency’s payroll costs (a LOT more)
  4. ratify a new agreement with employees that they will pay the same “share” toward the “unfunded liability”, or “catch up” payments

Meanwhile, we do need to poke our legislators to dump the California Rule, and to start dissolving CalPERS and working toward a more sustainable pension system for our certainly needed but much overcompensated public employees. 

Next time we’ll apply the same argument to the City of Chico, who may not be discussing their one cent sales tax increase measure in front of the public right now, but I assure you they are planning to put it on the 2020 ballot. You can find the same actuarial report for the city at the website I linked above, just punch in City of Chico. 

Click to access chico-area-recreation-and-park-district-miscellaneous-2018.pdf

Click to access chico-area-recreation-and-park-district-miscellaneous-2018.pdf

Click to access chico-area-recreation-and-park-district-miscellaneous-2018.pdf

Click to access chico-area-recreation-and-park-district-miscellaneous-2018.pdf

Pension deficit, unfunded accrued liability, whatever you want to call it – by any other name, a turd will still stink

31 Mar

Today I posted a piece sent in by a reader – 

https://chicotaxpayers.com/2020/03/31/will-states-use-covid-19-funds-to-bail-out-pensions/

It’s a good article because it touches on issues related to the pension deficit. I’m afraid a lot of people aren’t worried about the pension deficit because they don’t really understand what it is or what it’s doing to our economy. So let’s dive in.

What is the pension deficit? It’s the difference between what public employees have paid into their pensions and what they expect to get in retirement. In California that difference is well into the negative.

In the late 1990’s, our state retirement agency cut a deal with other state agencies, promising they would fund pensions of 70 – 90% of highest years’ salary with stock market investments, allowing local agencies to negotiate unrealistically low employer and employee shares with the unions. Many agencies negotiated contracts in which the employer would pay the entire employee share. This resulted in very low contributions from employers/employees.

At the same time, many agencies also raised salaries markedly – in Chico, during the early 2000’s, the city doled out raises of 14%, 19%, 22%, for several years running. City manager Tom Lando’s salary, for example, went from about $65,000/year to about $135,000 in just the last few years before he retired. His successor came in at $190,000 and retired in less than a year. The next city manager agreed to work for a paltry $180,000, but his successor, Brian Nakamura, got over $200,000/year, also leaving in less than a year. Nakamura’s successor Mark Orme agreed to an initial $180,000, but now makes over $220,000 with “extra pay”. 

Orme will argue that he’s taken pay cuts – no, he just hasn’t been given a raise in salary for a few years. He will also tell you he’s paying more of his pension – so fucking what? Orme went from having the entire tab picked up by the taxpayers to paying less than 15% of his pension cost out of his own pocket. The taxpayers pick up most of the other 85%, with minimal contributions from CalPERS questionable stock investments. 

The low contribution rates coupled with the irrational salary increases put Chico in deep doo doo. In 2013, Chico employees’ pension deficit was about $168,000,000. When Chico came close to bankruptcy back in 2012, local conservatives pointed the finger at a liberal majority on council, accusing them of bad spending habits, but nobody wanted to talk about exactly what the debt was made up of. The UAL – unfunded accrued liability – is our single biggest debt, far overshadowing any other debt the city is carrying right now.

This is a national problem.  Today, the national pension debit is over $122 trillion. Put that in relation to your life. If you own a home, a car,  really nice clothes, even an extensive collection of Hummel figurines, you are probably not even worth a million.  Well, one trillion is 1,000 times 1 billion. 1 billion itself is 1,000 times 1 million. 

Here’s how I put it into perspective – within my lifetime, Jed Clampett was a millionaire, and that was a really big deal. 

Who should pay the UAL? That’s next time, when we take up the subject of “pension protection clauses,” or, The California Rule. 

 

Will states use COVID-19 funds to bail out pensions? Let’s talk about true pension reform first

31 Mar

https://www.realclearpolitics.com/articles/2020/03/30/dont_let_states_rob_covid-19_funds_to_bail_out_pensions.html

Don’t Let States Rob COVID-19 Funds to Bail Out Pensions

COMMENTARY
.
By Ted Dabrowski & Mark Glennon – RCP Contributors
March 30, 2020

Now that Congress has passed its broader humanitarian aid packages in response to the COVID-19 virus, it’s likely that the nation’s most fiscally irresponsible states will request bailouts for something completely unrelated to the virus: their bankrupt pension plans.

Bad as that may be, it’s likely some sort of assistance will materialize from Congress. If that happens, any support should be conditioned on pension reform.

It’s not a stretch to think that federal money will somehow find its way into the nation’s most dysfunctional pension plans. New Jersey’s Phil Murphy, governor of a state with one of the worst pension crises in the country, is seeking a multi-billion-dollar, flexible block grant. Meanwhile, Chicago Mayor Lori Lightfoot, whose city is already junk rated largely due to pensions, has warned “this is a B-sized problem, meaning something that can only be solved with billions in needed stimulus support from the federal government.”

With the shortfall in pension funds exceeding what Stanford’s Pension Tracker says was $5 trillion even before the meltdown, you can bet those governments most mired in pension debt will seek additional help. They could demand direct aid for their state and local pensions, or for their own operations that indirectly support those pensions. But states and cities that bankrupted their funds through corrupted governance long before the current crisis shouldn’t get a free pass.

Many states, including Illinois, New Jersey and Connecticut, have refused real reform for decades, wreaking havoc on their residents and the retirement security of their workers. That’s reason enough to require preconditions for any federal support.

The rationale for requiring reforms with any aid is threefold. First, supporting irresponsible states with no strings attached is fundamentally unfair to those states that have already enacted major reforms. Second, structural reforms reduce the risk of future federal bailouts by setting those states on a path toward stability. Third, requiring reforms would reduce the cost of any potential federal aid to those states.

Illinois is a perfect example of a state that shouldn’t be bailed out at the expense of fiscally responsible governments. Gov. J.B. Pritzker, the state legislature and Chicago Mayor Lightfoot all reject structural pension reforms that would fix Illinois’ problems. They continue to block efforts to amend the state’s pension-protection clause through a constitutional amendment and they refuse to authorize the option of municipal bankruptcy, something that only requires a legislative majority.

Instead, like their predecessors, they’re protecting the status quo. As a result, Illinois’ Net Primary Position – basically its net worth – has worsened by $190 billion since 2001. Those losses resulted primarily from growing unfunded pension and retiree health insurance liabilities. Illinois’ pension crisis is now the nation’s worst, both in terms of total shortfall and on a per capita basis, according to Moody’s Investors Service. The agency rates Illinois just one notch away from junk.

Conditions in New Jersey are no better. The Garden State’s pension funds were flush at the turn of the century, but since then, gross bipartisan mismanagement and pension holidays have led to near insolvency. S&P warned in June of 2019 that: “[The state’s] inability to contribute [its] annually determined contribution after 10 years of national economic recovery raises questions about what could happen in another recession.”

Connecticut is also swimming in unfunded pension and retirement health care debts. Those obligations equaled nearly 40% of its GDP in 2018 – the highest among all states, according to Moody’s. And like Illinois, the state has resorted to decades-long reamortizations and is considering asset transfers instead of real, structural reforms.

If that’s not evidence enough, consider this. In 2018, the plans for Chicago’s 30,000 active and retired public safety workers were just 22% funded. The funding for Kentucky’s 90,000 state workers was even worse, at just 16%. And the plan for New Jersey’s 136,000 public employees was only 32%. All those workers lost their retirement security due to politicians’ corrupt practices long before the current crisis.

The unwillingness of such states to make hard choices on their own is precisely why any help from the federal government must come with preconditions.

Defined contribution plans, cost of living reforms and increased retirement ages are all part of the suite the federal government should require. And for states that have constitutional protections, lawmakers must commit to removing them or lose out on aid.

Whether the federal government eventually provides direct aid to state and local governments remains to be seen. However, it’s imperative that any such support not be used to bail out pensions or enable irresponsible states to further ignore their retirement crises.

Ted Dabrowski is a former international managing director for Citibank and current president of Wirepoints, an independent, nonpartisan research and news organization focused on fiscal and economic policy.

Mark Glennon, a former bankruptcy lawyer and venture capital investor, is executive editor and founder of Wirepoints, an independent, nonpartisan research and news organization focused on fiscal and economic policy.

A conversation that needs to be had before November – WHO will pay the pension deficit?

14 Feb

Here’s a NO on A letter that merits further discussion – this is a conversation that needs to be had. 

Before we hand CARD $3 million a year with Measure A, here’s why we’re smarter not to. First, we have a massive pension debt and no solution yet. I’m willing to vote higher city taxes this fall to help with that, but not to launch CARD on a spending spree for new toys – the main one being an aquatic center we didn’t all want. But about $3 million a year in new money should get that done in a few years, so why a permanent parcel tax? And why is CARD putting the money into a $36 million bond? Bonds mean one hell of a spending spree ahead, and losing a third or more of the money on interest payments. It’s kind of like how we’re funding pensions, except CalPERS and the unions never mentioned how much we’re about to lose by the state and them not paying it up front like we were told. Tricky thing dissembling.

There’s one more problem. The reason we don’t already have an aquatic center is that the city council wouldn’t buy CARD one. Council members have to think when it comes to what city agencies want and what our taxes can cover. If Measure A fails that will keep happening. I like that. We don’t even know what all the toys are CARD will start throwing money at once nobody can get in its way anymore. CARD will be a pretty hefty sow by the time it shows up at city council overextended again.

— David P. Smith, Chico

 

A line that I find very disturbing is, “I’m willing to vote higher city taxes this fall…”

 

Why the hell would you do that, Dave?  

And then he says, “It’s kind of like how we’re funding pensions, except CalPERS and the unions never mentioned how much we’re about to lose by the state and them not paying it up front like we were told.”   He assumes we all know how the pensions are funded, and what he means by “how much we’re about to lose by the state…”  I don’t think very many people really understand how we fund the pensions. Nor do I believe the average voter/taxpayers is aware how much CalPERS has lost in the stock market through bad investments. But the part that really interests me is “them not paying it up front like we were told.”

Thanks Dave, cause this is the conversation that needs to be had. 

First of all, the pensions are funded through payments made by the public agency and supplemented with stock market investments. Unfortunately, CalPERS made big, stupid promises, saying they could fund more than 50% of the pensions through investments. They amassed a lot of assets – a high rise building in NYC? – and began building a portfolio, promising a 7% return. 

But,  CalPERS investments have never held up to their promises because they continue to make bad investments. They have been lucky to get 3%. So, their investments end up costing money.  Some of these investments have been made inappropriately.  In fact, in 2015, “a federal grand jury indicted two former top officials on fraud, conspiracy and obstruction charges.”

https://www.cnetscandal.com/2015/11/ex-calpers-official-villalobos-commits.html

A CalPERS executive and a board member were found to have been taking bribes to buy poorly performing stocks. 

“Villalobos, collected tens of millions of dollars from Wall Street firms for steering CalPERS business their way.”

“At the center of the investigation was the role of placement agents, the middlemen or intermediaries hired by private equity firms and other financial institutions to win CalPERS business. The investigation came during a rough financial stretch for CalPERS. Its investment portfolio value had plummeted nearly $100 billion, to $169 billion, during the recession.”

Guilty as hell, Villalobos committed suicide before he could be sentenced. His partner was convicted and went to prison.  Since then, CalPERS claims to have cleaned up their act, but their portfolio continues to do badly. So they hired an “assassin” – a guy who comes in and cleans up the mess.

https://www.marketwatch.com/story/nothing-is-sacred-for-new-calpers-pension-leader-2019-12-11

In his first week, Mr. Meng surprised staffers by introducing himself to employees from the most junior to senior level. Over the next few months, he was taken aback by how little some staffers knew about the fund’s investments, a person familiar with the matter said. Mr. Meng concluded some lacked information he thought needed to be routinely monitored.

So there’s corruption and incompetence here, not surprising. What would surprise me is to hear that some management was fired, possibly even investigated. What would surprise me even more would be CalPERS actually making money instead of pouring it down the toilet. 

Unfortunately, CalPERS corruption and incompetence only add up to half the conversation.  

Here’s the conversation that still needs to be had.  Who should pay the deficit?

Right now, the taxpayers are picking up not only the monthly payroll amounts, but the semi-annual deficit payments as well. Here’s how that pencils out – I’ll use CARD as an example.

The agency pays 14% of the cost of it’s management pensions. The employees pay 5.5 to 8% of the 14%.  It works like this:  for a $100,000/year salary,  the agency pays (100,000 x .14) $14,000/year, total. This is a management salary, management pays 8%, so that employee would pay (14,000 x .08) $1,120/year. For a pension of 70%, or $70,000/year. That base figure goes up with cost of living increases, based on the Consumer Price Index. 

The agency only pays 14%, the other 86% is the deficit. As their stock market returns continue to disappoint, CalPERS demands more money. That money has been taken from CARD’s General Fund, by way of a “Pension Stabilization Trust”. Money that would have been better spent maintaining district facilities. 

Meanwhile, CARD employees continue to receive above market salaries and pay pennies on the dollar for very generous pension packages.

CARD General Manager Ann Willmann told us at her “informational meetings” that she has personally met with CalPERS officials and “begged” them to change the employee shares. Really? She should be talking to the board, because that’s who negotiates the salaries and the shares. City of Chico pays different shares than CARD, so these contracts are obviously negotiated in house.

What can we do?  The problem we need to solve is, the public is left out of the negotiations. We have no real representation – not in Chico, where too many pensioneers are on our council and various boards. For example, of the five members of the CARD board, two are public pensioneers – Tom Lando, former city of Chico manager, and Tom Nickell, former CHP officer.

I believe these people have a conflict of interest between their own benefit and the public benefit. I think it behooves them to keep approving the salary increases, because that means the agency pays more into the pension fund.  It is obviously in their best interest to keep making the deficit or “side fund” payments, or CalPERS would have gone bankrupt by now and they would be out their nice pensions. In fact, Lando is one of the top five pensioneers in Butte County, having retired at about $134,000/year, with COLA, he’s now getting over $155,000 in annual pension payments.  I’m not sure about Nickell, but I sincerely believe Lando is pressing this tax measure not for CARD, but for CalPERS. He has put $6,000 of his own money into Measure A – you have to spend money to make money, folks.

I also think Lando has been on the CARD board long enough, and needs to step down when his term is up in November. That’s not likely.

Here’s my solution.  I am hoping some competent and honest candidates come forward for CARD board in November. I think a good candidate would  be a local business person who has experience with CARD. Somebody who doesn’t have financial gain to be made. Somebody who understands finance on a basic level. Somebody who has a long stake in the community, whether business or family. And, somebody who has the support of their family, because there are some minor inconveniences involved, like monthly meetings, “special” meetings, and excursions to various district facilities.

I don’t think that’s a complete list, and I didn’t mean to leave anybody out.  I would say, if you are interested in  filling a position like  this, the first thing you’d want to do is attend meetings. Familiarize yourself with the website, and be sure to contact staff with any questions. Read agendas and reports. Read the minutes of past meetings. Read the budgets, not just the most recent, but past budgets to compare. That’s all on the website. I can also give you information I’ve got from staff that’s not on the website, feel free to ask. 

CARD board is doable. It’s not an expensive election, the meetings are short. And, if you are interested in getting involved, CARD is a good start. THINK ABOUT IT!

 

 

 

 

 

Joshua Rauh: Public Pensions are an economic time bomb, and young people will be at the epicenter of the blast

24 Nov

Bob sent a link to a really interesting video that explains the “pension time bomb” in language the average person can understand.

https://www.prageru.com/video/public-pensions-an-economic-time-bomb/

Josuah Rauh is a professor of finance at Stanford School of Business, Director of Research for the Hoover Institute, and has written extensively on the nationwide pension problem. I love his no-nonsense style. This problem is really simple.

Rauh doesn’t mince words.  “I want to talk about three words that should scare the heck out of you, especially if you’re young. PUBLIC PENSION LIABILITIES”

He’s absolutely right, young people will be left holding the bag.  To quote Chico City Manager Mark Orme and Assistant Manager Chris Constantin, this city has “kicked the can down the road” on infrastructure maintenance  for many years. What neither man mentions is that the city has continued to pay increasing salaries and benefits for city management. They both lie through their teeth, claiming to have “stopped the bleeding…” performed “a miracle”. In truth they have both taken very generous pay raises and have already added a 401k plan to their already generous pension packages. More about that later.

So, our kids will get stuck with failing infrastructure and the billions in taxes it will take to fix it. Not to mention, paying for generations of public workers, like Orme and Constantin,  allowed to retire at age 50 – 55 with well over $100,000/year in pension.

Unfortunately, this is a message that mostly falls on deaf ears. Rauh continues, “that’s why all of this is so scary – no one is paying attention.” Well, in defense of the average citizen – myself – I’ll say, it’s been made complicated on purpose – go to a meeting, and listen to staff make it as convoluted as possible. 

Rauh puts it in simple language, as if he is explaining this to someone from another planet, who has never heard of such a ludicrous policy. “What is a public pension liability,” he asks rhetorically. “A guaranteed lifetime payment to somebody after they retire.” That seems simple enough, but the important word here is “guaranteed“.

Years ago,  private sector workers got pensions, but private businesses were not able to keep up with the costs associated, and either dropped their pensions plans for 401K’s or went under. Right now, once giant media conglomerate McClatchy (which formerly owned newspapers and tv stations all over the state), is going under due to unfunded pension liabilities. 

McClatchy’s financial distress has the company exploring options — including a sale

 

But public workers will not cooperate, they demand to keep their guaranteed pensions.  According to public employee unions,  no matter how the economy tanks, they get their money. While CalPERS promised to fund these outrageous pensions via investments in the stock market, they have failed miserable, and now they are laying the bag at our feet. 

Rauh continues, “They are eating state and city budgets alive… more than 62,000 retired public employees are receiving pensions of over $100,000/year…  Currently many cities are paying for multiple public departments at the same time, the department that’s working now, and (due to people living longer) a generation of two of public employees.” Estimates of the state’s total unfunded pension liability go over $200 trillion. 

The problem, he says, is “a corrupt merry go round  – public employee unions give donations to candidates who are then responsible for negotiating how much of your money  goes  to public sector workers“. In Chico the biggest donors in every local election are the employee unions, usually led by Chico Police Officers Association. 

The other problem is, “they hide the payments that are  due down the road.” Here in Chico, you have to know the right question to ask, in the proper vernacular, or they just ignore you. You have to watch agendas and read onerous reports printed in the smallest typeset available, sideways on the page. 

You have to be forward with these people.  Even when Dave Howell corrected CARD General Manager about their pension deficit, Willmann overstated employee contribution figures at the informational meetings. She corrected herself in an email when I questioned her about it later, after she’d already been misinforming people for weeks. She made no attempt to correct herself publicly, even after I wrote a letter to the paper about it. 

Rauh points out same. “How do they get away with this? They use a time tested political strategy – they lie.

The first, big lie was that they could pay for these increasingly generous pensions, “not by collecting taxes but by making investments.” Then they went about raising the roof on salaries. For example, former city manager Dave Burkland left in 2012 at $130,000 base salary. His replacement, Brian Nakamura, came in at $219,000. About a year later, Nakamura left for another job, and his assistant manager Mark Orme, also his former assistant in the city of Hemet, replaced him at a salary of $205,000. Now Orme enjoys a base salary of $223,000/year, with a benefits package of over $42,000. 

CalPERS keeps claiming a return of 7% on their investments. But, as Rauh says, ” it’s less and less likely that they will make their investment assessment, because they do risky investements.” So, why, oh why, does our council keep agreeing to annual pay raises for Orme and other management? Why did they give these people, in addition to their costly and generous benefits packages, 401k plans complete with an employer share? 

The problem is the salaries are too generous for the taxpayer to ever be able to guarantee 70 – 90% in retirement. Rauh says, “We need to turn things around using public pressure, discipline and common sense.”

Public pressure – read agendas and reports, do some simple research, and contact your elected officials to tell  them what you know about this problem. Some of our city council members seem genuinely clueless, willing to be led by  staff instead of the people. It’s time for the people to lead.

Discipline – I mean, really, read the damned agendas, read the reports, look up stuff you don’t understand, ask questions. Don’t let yourself believe you can’t make a difference, but yeah, it’s a lot of hard work. 

Common Sense – this issue really is simple, don’t let public employees try to make it sound too complicated. Here’s one common sense question to ask yourself – was I included in the conversation? Did I make these promises? Why should I be on the hook for these outrageous salaries and pensions? 

Now, using public pressure, discipline, and common sense, here’s what Rauh says we need to do:

“We need state and local governments to report their  unfunded liabilities honestly, the real numbers, using the 2 – 3 % yields that sound financial reporting would require. No more pie in the sky stuff…”  We have Stephanie Taber to thank, back in 2011, for demanding the finance reports be given properly. Then Finance Director Jennifer Hennessy was not doing reports at all, her boss Dave Burkland didn’t require her to do it. Can you believe that? What private sector company would get away with that? Taber had to use public pressure, discipline, and common sense. Now the finance reports are given every month and available online. 

And now, using letters to the editor and posts on this blog, Dave Howell is trying to question the city about their true pension costs, demanding they make their Annual Finance Report (CAFR) available to the public. The city is hiding their true liability figures, saying they are only $130 million in deficit when the true figure is over $200 million. 

“the truth should shock  voters into demanding action.”  Yes, it should, but people use the most ridiculous excuses for not paying attention. This is where discipline comes in – I’m not an accountant, but I’ve made myself read and understand those finance reports. You can too. And then open your mouth and squeal like Ned Beatty, cause you are being screwed.

The action Rauh suggests we demand is “to phase out the guaranteed pension programs as quickly as possible and introduce 401k plans…

I agree with Rauh. Public employees who do their jobs should be amply compensated. He calls 401k’s a “win-win’ which,  “if designed properly, can provide excellent retirement benefits…” Here’s the win for taxpayers – employees are responsible for their own investments, and if they choose poorly, the taxpayer is not on the hook to bail them out. 

Furthermore, “401k’s are portable, employees can take them along, don’t have to be locked into government jobs to get retirement benefits.

Now, unfortunately, here’s where the corrupt merry-go-round comes in – our council, fed on employee union donations, has already given management employees a type of 401k called a “457 plan”, in addition to their guaranteed pensions. Here’s Orme’s contract, read it for yourself:

Click to access OrmeEmploymentAgreement10-2017.pdf

“The City has established a Deferred Compensation Plan in accordance
with Internal Revenue Code (IRC) 457 (“IRC 457 plan”). Effective from the first pay period in
January 2017 considered in calculating the maximum IRC 457 plan limit and annually, City agrees
to contribute nine thousand dollars ($9,000), to Employee’s IRC 457 plan. Additionally, effective
October 15,2017, the City agrees to contribute four and fifty- two hundredths percent (4.52%) of
base salary to Employee’s IRC 457 plan.”

In Chico, public employee unions SEIU, CPOA, AND IFFA are among the biggest donors in every council election. I think the only donor that gives more money is Franklin Construction.  So, I would add to Rauh’s list – change the laws to restrict donations from public employee unions. Our city council can do this, but as you can guess, that would take a lot of public pressure.

Rauh suggests “lets end the current structure of public sector pensions and move to a sustainable way of compensating our public employees.” He’s not advocating cutting anybody off, but frankly, I am. I would suggest we press council to refuse to approve new contracts for management employees who refuse to take pay and benefits cuts. As stated in Orme’s contract, council has the right to refuse salary increases, and even to ask employees to take a cut. Again, this would take a lot of public pressure. 

So, it’s really up to us.