Stockton's Pension Struggles Offer Lessons for California
But it might take another major economic downturn to get state officials to check out the problems.
Nearly two years ago, this column reported on an official financial forecast from the northern California city of Stockton's bankruptcy proceedings showing that within a few years after exiting bankruptcy the city was likely to re-enter it.
It was an official document, circulated by former Republican Assemblyman and Board of Equalization member Dean Andal, who is well respected for his understanding of fiscal matters. The city pooh-poohed the suggestion, and provided its own economic analysis, although it refused to share the detailed data with the media or the public.
The bad news was easy to believe. Stockton's bankruptcy exit plan didn't address the fiscal elephant in City Hall (unfunded pension liabilities). The city was following the basic route taken by the Bay Area city of Vallejo, which also went bankrupt and soon again faced deep fiscal problems.
The crux of Stockton's plan was a voter-approved tax and spending plan. Measure A raised the city's sales tax by three-quarters of a cent. Measure B was an advisory vote for how the money would be spent. The tax-hike campaign promised significant new spending on popular programs, especially law enforcement in that crime-plagued city. Voters approved the measures.
Now, after collecting the tax for 15 months, the data seems to confirm what Andal had been saying. "After only one full budget year, the city has already broken three fundamental promises and is destined to return to insolvency within four years," wrote Andal in a letter this month to supporters and opponents of the 2013 ballot measures.
First, the city promised to hire 120 net new police officers over three years, with 40 new officers hired by last July. The city hired only 13 new officers so far. Second, the city promised the new sales-tax measure would raise $29.5 million by July, but fell $1.4 million short. Third, the "plan of adjustment" expected its pension payments to the California Public Employees' Retirement System to be nearly $23 million – but the actual costs were $23.7 million higher.
The Stockton situation is of statewide importance because it's clear the state's unfunded pension liability crisis has not gone away even in relatively good economic times. "All these budget problems show up at the service level," Andal told me. He says Stockton faces "service insolvency," i.e., a budget so troubled the city cannot provide adequate levels of public services.
Stockton spent $38 million in legal fees in a nationally watched bankruptcy proceeding. Judge Christopher Klein ruled that cities could cut pension benefits in bankruptcy. Stockton officials chose not to do so, relying instead on other cuts and sales-tax increase. Now that their numbers might not be adding up, it puts the city in a difficult position, Andal argues, given it already has the highest sales tax allowed by law, the highest utility tax in the Central Valley and some of the highest developer fees.
Other cities will likewise find limited ability to raise new revenues as CalPERS continues its plan to ramp up its bill for cities that participate in its pension plan. Yet Sacramento officials act as if the pension problem is gone. There's hardly an issue legislators didn't try to address in the recently concluded legislative session, yet nothing of substance to deal with growing pension debts. The good-government group California Common Sense confirms that the state's unfunded pension liabilities continue to show a pattern of steady increases.
Pension reformers led by former San Jose Mayor Chuck Reed and former San Diego city councilman Carl DeMaio have proposed a statewide measure that would subject most local pension increases to voter approval. They say the title and summary Attorney General Kamala Harris offered for that measure includes the same union-backed poison pill (claiming the initiative undermines constitutional benefit protections) she used for previous pension reform measures. They plan take the matter to court.
So nothing much has changed at the statewide level, with the state political establishment squelching reform. Sadly, it might take another economic downturn to get Sacramento officials to check out the problems in a city just 50 miles from the Capitol.