Few non-local people pay much attention to the goings-on in Stockton, a hard-pressed Gold-Rush-era industrial city of 300,000 that sits in the agriculturally rich San Joaquin Valley at the eastern edge of the California Delta. But bond-holders, taxpayers and government officials throughout the country will be listening to U.S. Bankruptcy Judge Christopher Klein's expected ruling on Monday as he decides whether the city may remain in bankruptcy and pursue a plan that stiffs its bond-holders.
If Klein sides with the city, then municipalities will face a disturbingly low bar for pursuing bankruptcy. They will be emboldened to choose Stockton's course—i.e., using bankruptcy as a strategic policy tool to offload debts without having to confront the main reasons that they went bankrupt in the first place, such as lush pensions. Bankruptcy will no longer be a policy of last resort. This should have an impact on bond markets.
If the city wins the case, argued March 25-27 in the Sacramento federal courthouse, then the public-sector unions and the scandal-plagued California Public Employees Retirement System are right. No matter what problems befall a city, public services and taxpayers suffer first while union members and public retirement systems are protected.
Granted, no one should feel too sorry for the lenders (and their insurers) who provided the pension-obligation bonds to the city. They knew the risks when one lends money to a city—especially one controlled by the unions. But their argument is strongest. A city shouldn't use bankruptcy as a means to get rid of uncomfortable debts. It should use this tool only when it has slashed its costs but still can't get out from under the load.
On Tuesday, a Stockton management consultant called at the trial stated that the city would have a $100 million budget deficit in a decade if it does not take the bankruptcy route, in an attempt to show that it had no choice but to declare Chapter 9. But how hard has the city tried to deal with its debts?
As the attorney for the bond insurer noted in his closing comments on Wednesday, the city intended, from the outset of this process, to shortchange the bond holders. It has refused to address its biggest debt—the payments that it owes to CalPERS to pay for its pension obligations. It only modestly pulled back compensation from rates far above the market to somewhere near the average for public-sector workers in California.
Essentially, the city plan has put pension debt off the table, arguing that pension payments and benefits cannot legally be touched. A bankruptcy would be the place to challenge that assumption, but Stockton officials have no interest in doing so, figuring it's easier to go after Wall Street than the unions. If Stockton gets its way, then cities can spend anything on pensions and there is no way to ever get out from under that debt.
Some of the most telling testimony came Wednesday morning, when bond-insurer Assured Guaranty's attorney Guy Neal questioned city councilmember Kathy Miller about a July 2012 video that explained the fiscal situation to city residents. Here are some of her statements from the video:
In the 1990s, Stockton granted its employees some of the most generous and unsustainable labor contracts in the State of California.… Safety employees could now retire at the age of 50.… Many safety retirees today earn 90 to 100 percent of what they made when they were still on the job.
That's common. But Miller noted that:
Stockton went even further than most other cities and granted things like unlimited vacation and sick time that could be cashed out when an employee retired, and added pay categories for almost everything imaginable.… Our public safety employees were costing us on average more than $150,000 a year each. That's three times more than most of us in Stockton make in a year.
She described the "Lamborghini" health plan the city's employees received:
This was free medical care for a retiree and a dependent for the rest of their lives. No co-pays, no generic requirements, no HMOs, and no premiums. See any doctor, stay in any hospital, purchase any drug, and just send the bill to the city of Stockton.
Absurd pay and benefits are common, and not just in Stockton. San Francisco Chronicle columnists Matier and Ross revealed recently that the Alameda County executive receives a $423,000 a year pay package for life. Compensation for California firefighters is in the $175,000 a year range. Some Newport Beach lifeguards receive $200,000 a year pay packages. As a friend of mine joked, revolutions have been fought over lesser instances of public pilfering.
Stockton pulled back on some abuses, but has left the main problem in place. Why is it OK that Stockton residents have to put up with closed parks, reduced policing and other cutbacks to protect outrageous pension and pay levels?
Currently, Stockton leaders are floating a tax increase plan to fund police officers. But money is fungible so this should be viewed as a tax designed to pay for past boondoggles. Whatever the court decides, it's time for the public to stand up to these misshapen priorities.