In the latest sign that America’s looming pension crisis is inching closer to an all-our collapse that will inevitably end in a series of bailouts – or worse, the failure to pay out retiree’s coveted benefits - a handful of California cities are lashing out at CALPers after being forced to hike pension contributions to offset expectations for long-term returns that have been revised lower by the state pension system.
Ten of the largest local governments in the capital region can expect to pay a total of $216 million to CalPERS in fiscal 2018-19, an increase of $27 million over this year, according to the Sacramento Bee. And nearly half of that increase will be borne by one local government – the city of Sacramento.
The Sacramento region’s largest local governments will see pension costs go up by an estimated 14 percent next fiscal year, starting a series of annual increases that many city officials say are “unsustainable” and will force service cuts or tax hikes.
The increases come after CalPERS in December reduced the expected rate of return from investments, forcing local governments and other participants in the state’s retirement plan to pay more to cover the cost of pensions.
As one might expect, city officials are less than pleased. According to Leyne Milstein, the city of Sacramento’s finance director, said the city’s pension costs will double in seven years, and while city revenues have also increased in recent years, thanks in part to a strong real-estate market, the rise won’t be nearly enough to offset the increased cost.
“It’s not sustainable,” Milstein said. “These costs are going to make things incredibly challenging.”
In a report this month, Joe Nation, a researcher at the Stanford Institute for Economic Policy Research, wrote that “employer pension contributions are projected to roughly double between 2017 and 2030, resulting in the further crowd out of traditional government services.”
Nation said he supports tax increases to pay for pension obligations, although he adds that it would be extremely difficult to muster political support for such a tax.
In a futile exercise that resembles banging one’s head against a wall, local government officials from across the state, including West Sacramento, complained to CALPers board members, warning that they would need to cut services and raise taxes to put more money toward pensions.
“We don’t know how we’re going to operate,” said Oroville’s finance director, Ruth Wright, who suggested that a doubling of pension costs in five years could force the city into the nuclear option. “We’ve been saying the bankruptcy word.”
Of course, there’s little CALPers can do. If it doesn’t mandate the increases, it knows that will increase its culpability when the music stops and every asset has been liquidated.
To wit, Steve Maviglio of the labor-backed Californians for Retirement Security said officials have the means to address the increased costs. “If city officials are truly interested in meeting their obligations, they always have that opportunity at the bargaining table or providing more revenue thru measures on the ballot,” he said.
Of course, this exercise in cya isn’t nearly enough to stave off the inevitable collapse. Nation questions whether the new CalPERS return rate is too optimistic. In his report, he provides estimates for how much local governments can expect to pay if the fund’s investments don’t meet projections. In 12 years, the city of Sacramento would see pension costs go up $94 million a year under his alternative projection.
To afford these higher costs absent higher revenues, Sacramento would have to cut 25% of police and fire services after cutting other less essential services.
Milstein said she won’t estimate when or if the city will have to start cutting employees if the current financial forecast proves correct. In the city’s current budget, officials said, “Given the current revenue forecast, the city alone cannot absorb the increased costs of providing retirement benefits.”
Some groups, including the League of California Cities are lobbying CalPERS to consider funding options besides raising employer rates, including possibly suspending cost-of-living adjustments for pensioners and looking at working current workers into less generous plans.
As we’ve noted many times, defined benefit pension plans are, in many cases, a Ponzi scheme…
Current assets are used to pay current claims in full despite insufficient funding to pay future liabilities...but unlike Wall Street Ponzi schemers like Bernie Madoff, nobody goes to jail because everybody is complicit.
While California’s problem is certainly dire, pension costs directly triggered budget battles in state capitols across the US this year. Connecticut is still struggling to pass a budget that meaningfully reduces an expected $3.5 billion two-year deficit.
Indeed, as the chart below illustrates, underfunded pensions are an endemic problem.