LADWP retirees bring in bigger pensions than city, county workers, audit says

As reported by the L.A. Daily News:

Workers who retire from the Los Angeles Department of Water and Power enjoy a higher monthly pension, on average, than retired public employees from the city and county, according to an audit released this week by City Controller Ron Galperin.

LADWP retirees received an average monthly pension payment of $5,212 in the fiscal year ending July 1, 2015, the audit said.

That figure is higher than the $4,023 average monthly payment for other city retirees and the $3,881 pension amount per month for retired county workers, amounts that are used as comparisons in the audit performed by contractor, Aon Hewitt Investment Consulting.

But while the LADWP’s pension benefits on average surpass those of other local government agencies, they are still slightly lower than the pension payments received by police and firefighters. The average monthly pension is just shy of the $5,309 monthly payments for Los Angeles police and fire department employees, according to the audit. …

Click here to read the full story

California Cuts Services, Staff to Pay Pension Costs

POLICY – Across California, many local governments have raised taxes while cutting services. Local officials desperate for union support have made irresponsible deals with public employee unions, creating staggering employee costs. Taxpayer money meant to provide essential services to the least well-off instead goes directly to higher salaries and benefits.

In Santa Barbara County, the 2017-2018 budget calls for laying off nearly 70 employees while dipping into reserve funds. The biggest cuts are to the Department of Social Services, which works to aid low-income families and senior citizens. Meanwhile, $546 million of needed infrastructure improvements go unfunded as Santa Barbara County struggles to pay off $700 million in unfunded pension liabilities. County officials estimate that increasing pension costs may cause hundreds of future layoffs.

Unfortunately, Santa Barbara County is far from alone. Tuolumne County is issuing layoffs in the face of rising labor and pension costs from previous agreements. In Kern County, a budget shortfall spurred by increased pension costs has led to public safety layoffs, teacher shortages, budget cuts, and the elimination of the Parks and Recreation department, even as Kern County’s unfunded pension liability surpasses $2 billion. In the Santa Ana Unified School District, nearly 300 teachers have been laid off after years of receiving pay raises that made them unaffordable, including a 10% raise in 2015.

In Riverside County, non-union county employees took the blow for the county’s irresponsible pension deals, as all but one of the 32 employees the county laid off this June were non-union members. This came after contract negotiations granted union employees hundreds of millions of dollars in raises. The Riverside County DA said these raises caused public safety cuts. In addition, Riverside County imposed an extra 1% sales tax to pay for these benefits. Across California, citizens suffer as local governments give away their money while cutting their services.

Government projections continually underestimate pension costs. According to a new study by the Hoover Institution, pension liabilities are understated by trillions of dollars. This happens because governments assume unrealistic rates of return on pension investments. The California Public Employees’ Retirement System, the agency managing pension and health benefits for most California employees, will assume a rate of return of 7% starting in 2020 (the current assumption is 7.5%), however, last year, CalPERS earned a return of 0.6%. California’s defined benefit system for public employees means that governments must pay their employees a fixed amount regardless of how pension plans perform. Rosy estimates for future pension performance make government obligations look smaller than they are.

Unrealistic projections also allow government officials to award big pensions, as officials argue that the big future returns they have assumed can pay off the costs. When reality hits and pension returns fall short, taxpayers are left footing the bill. This year, Californians paid $5.4 billion because of this baseless confidence, more than the state spent on environmental protection, drought response, and fighting wildfires combined. Short-sighted government optimism has real consequences for citizens forced to live in the real world.

The future of government finance throughout California looks bleak due to government mismanagement of taxpayer funds. Local representatives grant unions generous terms, and those unions in turn donate to re-election campaigns. This vicious cycle costs Californians essential services. Agreements between government officials and union bosses allies harm taxpayers, service beneficiaries and even some union workers, who find their representatives complicit in laying them off.

Government does not exist to give taxpayer money to the politically connected. Because of their twisted incentives, California’s elected officials are directly responsible for the state having the highest poverty rate in the country, and the second most unfree economy. Instead of working to fix California’s challenges, many local officials create them by refusing to serve their constituents and instead forcing citizens serve the government. If public servants are serious about real improvements, they need to push for changes to the public pension system and for limitations in every interaction between lawmakers and public employee unions.

David Schwartzman is a Policy Research Fellow at the California Policy Center.  He is a rising senior studying economics, mathematics, and finance at Hillsdale College.

This article was originally published by CityWatchLA.com

Union Continues Misinformation Campaign on Pension Crisis

Calpers headquarters is seen in Sacramento, California, October 21, 2009. REUTERS/Max Whittaker

Just as the moment appeared that the media attention devoted to California’s pension crisis had begun to reach a fever pitch regarding the state’s pension crisis, a key state public employee union doubled down on its misinformation campaign regarding the state’s pension crisis.

Yvonne Walker, president of the Service Employees International Union Local 1000, wrote a recent op-ed for the Sacramento Bee titled “Let’s not be as shortsighted on pensions as on drought.”

The title of the piece actually makes it seem like it might hint at a reality check on pensions, but if you read the piece there is scarcely a single point that cannot be refuted with substantial evidence and facts.

The piece begins by drawing a flawed parallel to the state’s drought, which recently ended due to record rainfall.

The piece states that a “group of self-styled experts has grabbed the media megaphone with doomsday predictions about California’s public worker pension funds.  They are repeating the same mistake, taking a short snapshot and concluding that it will extend forever,” state’s the Bee op-ed.

So the position the SEIU 1000 president is taking is that there will somehow be some great market correction between now and 2047, similar to the record rainfall this past winter, that will magically wipe away the $160 billion in unfunded liabilities that have accrued at the California State Public Employees’ Retirement Fund (CalPERS) since 2000.

This comparison may sound intriguing to Joe Public, or some state workers looking for some consolation in the increasingly abysmal prospects that their full pension will be there when they retire.  But it simply does not match with the facts and evidence, of which few are presented to back up her arguments.

First off, this is about math, pure and simple.  And for any expert, apart from the politically motivated state-funded UC Berkeley study cited in the piece, who has taken an honest look at the figures—things are not good.

In short, no financial expert can present any real evidence showing that CalPERS can grow its way back from its current 63% funded ratio to anywhere close to 100%.

Perhaps the best source is CalPERS own actuaries, Wilshire Associates, which has stated that they project the fund to achieve an average return of 6.1% over the next several years—nearly a whole percentage point below their current 7% assumed rate of return that doesn’t fully kick in until three years from now.

David G. Crane, a Democrat who was Governor Schwarzenegger’s’ point person on pension reform, is a former investment banker and wizard with the actual numbers.

Crane continues to publish a series of financial analyses of CalPER’s own figures, which prove that the fund is insolvent absent major policy changes and major changes in the assumed rates of return.

And if you don’t trust those folks, how about take a listen to a growing list of local administrators and public officials in local government who say that CalPERS recent rate increases are eating local government budgets alive and likely to push many to the brink of bankruptcy in the coming years.

Here is a great recent piece by a Beverly Hills City Councilman called “Pension Pomperipossa: Destroying California’s Cities,” while many more local and state accounts can be found on the Pension Tsunami website.

I doubt the Los Angeles Times, KQED, CALmatters.com, and famed editorial writer Dan Walters would devote a whole series to the state’s pension crisis if it were not for real.  These folks are not a group of “self-styled experts,” quite the contrary, these are the real experts—some of the best analysts in California politics.

Furthermore, even if CalPERS gets a 20% return on their portfolio in 2018, which is not even possible, they would still only recoup a fraction of their unfunded liabilities.

CalPERS and the state’s insolvent pension system is not subject to natural weather conditions, it’s a man-made disaster, resulting from years of mismanagement and making assumptions that deny the most basic of prudent actuarial and investment principals.

Unfortunately, SEIU President Walker and the rest of her union counterparts refuse to acknowledge what is so clear to everyone else—absent major policy changes CalPERS will go belly up and likely take a number of localities and public retirees down with it in the form of bankruptcy and lost government pensions.

That’s the reality.  And while union officials may believe they are gaining some kind of twisted political leverage or temporary windfall for their members by denying this reality, it will not change the underlying math, which is so very clear to everyone else.  In fact, the numbers are staggering, and undeniable to someone like me, and the many other experts listed above.

The state’s public employee unions are supposedly advocates for government and government employees, but by denying the most basic realities about the state’s pension crisis they are demonstrating that they care far more about their own self-interests than about a truly thriving public sector, and even the basic well-being of their own members.

After all, how will the state afford to pay for any current government programs if it is spending 4/5 of all new tax dollars on retired government employees?  I’m still not quite sure exactly how that policy result is defined as “progress.”

David Kersten is the president of the Kersten Institute for Governance and Public Policy—a Bay Area-based public policy think tank and consulting organization. Kersten is also an adjunct professor of public budgeting at the University of San Francisco. 

This piece was originally published by Fox and Hounds Daily

Ex-Government Workers in California Make More Than Those Still Working in the Private Sector

Last week the California Policy Center released a new study that compared the average full-career government pension to the average annual earnings of a full-time private sector worker. Not surprisingly, at least for anyone paying attention, ex-government workers make 26 percent more than people make in the private sector who are still working. The average government pension after 30 years work? $68,673. The average private sector pay? $54,326.

Pension moneyHow is it possible to pay government workers more when they’re retired than the rest of us make while we work? How can we afford this? When you try to answer this question, you begin to see just how misguided the left in California has gotten – at least the “left” as it is conventionally understood.

Because the left wants everything. And the government unions who control the “left” in California, along with the state Legislature and nearly every major city and county, promise everything. If any politician or public speaker stands up to them, they help organize demonstrations by left-wing activists, where, when they aren’t breaking windows and spraying innocent people with mace, they chant silly little phrases.

For example, they want to turn California into a “sanctuary” and invite millions of destitute immigrants to join the millions who are already here. But at the same time, they want to block development of land, energy, water and transportation assets, because that might harm the earth.

Please come on in, we welcome millions more
but building homes is sinful, so go sleep on the floor

The reason leftists are dupes is because despite all their resentment of “privilege,” they ignore the agenda of the most privileged special interest that has ever existed, which are the government unions in the state of California. They’re so busy insisting that California’s government invite the entire world’s destitute population – while simultaneously doing nothing to make room for them – that they’ve failed to realize that it is the government unions who are the only winners in this miserable equation.

Neglect the roads, let dams give way
but increase public servant pay

Every era has had its dupes, but the reason California’s leftists are the biggest dupes in the history of the world is because they haven’t figured out that their supposed friends are actually sleeping with the enemy. The left demonizes the wealthy, they demonize the banks, they demonize “Wall Street,” but fail to realize that their own state government – leftist to the core – is partnering with these corrupt financial special interests.

Who do they think invests nearly $800 billion of pension fund assets, collecting billions in fees? Who do they think lends billions to cash-strapped state and local governments that have gone broke paying government workers twice what ordinary citizens make? Who do you think benefits when restrictions on land and energy development cause asset bubbles at the same time as they drive the cost of living through the roof?

We hate wealth, we hate greed
but we are Wall Street’s friend in need

or

Invest your savings in the market, and lose it in the crash
but we’ll increase your taxes, so pension funds have cash

No expose of California’s left is complete without mentioning how they have corrupted environmentalism. In a practical world, we would strike a reasonable balance between development and preservation, so prosperity might lift billions out of poverty, empower women who actually need empowerment, and stabilize those burgeoning populations who eye the developed nations with understandable envy. Instead, California’s leftist oligarchs, supported by millions of leftist dupes, have decided to encourage immigration while actually curtailing our supplies of energy, water and land.

If this were all based on pure and naive idealism, one might forgive it. But these Malthusian, misanthropic masochists have embraced rationing as a substitute for development, abetted by surveillance systems that would make George Orwell blush, to make sure nobody uses a single kilowatt-hour or gallon of water more than they’re allotted. Want to plant a hedge, a lawn, or a “water guzzling” tree? Do you love to nurture living things on a lot bigger than a postage stamp? Not in California. Meanwhile, wealthy Silicon Valley “entrepreneurs” develop the mandatory sensors that will let your appliances monitor your behavior, at the same time as wealthy corporate interests plant vast new orchards of thirsty nut trees on the arid western acreage of the Central Valley.

Take short showers, pay excessive fees
so corporations can plant Walnut trees

California’s leftists aren’t helping themselves, the rest of humanity or the earth. They are dupes of the oligarchy. They have been duped into ignoring a profound, counter-intuitive, and very nonpartisan political reality: Government unions and wealthy elites are working together to undermine our liberty and our prosperity. At best, California’s leftists are blinded by their ideals and biases. At worst, they are seditious traitors to the people and the culture that gave them the time and the freedom to crowd our public spaces with their vandalism and their vacuous rhymes.

Ed Ring is the vice president of policy research for the California Policy Center.

San Diego spends millions on retired workers who get paycheck on top of pensions

Reported by the San Diego Union-Tribune:

Over the past seven years, the City of San Diego has paid more than $14.7 million to bring retirees back to work part-time while they still collect a pension.

According to data from the city Comptroller’s Office, 331 pensioners worked more than 436,600 hours between December 2009 and December 2016.

Three out of every four retirees were brought back more than once, data show, with more than a dozen serving continuously in rolls such as deputy city attorney, investigator, lifeguard chief or program manager over the past seven years.

Rehiring pensioners as provisional employees is a decades-old practice, but the use of them spiked in 2009. They continued to take up more than 100 city positions per year since then. …

Click here to read the full article

Will Local Officials Finally Get the Tools They Need to Prevent Pension Tsunami?

pensionSACRAMENTO – A decision by four Marin County public-employee associations to appeal a pension-related case to the California Supreme Court could ultimately determine whether localities have the tools needed to rein in escalating pension debt. At issue is how far officials can go to reduce some benefits for current employees after a state appeals court has chipped away at a legal “rule” long favored by the state’s unions.

In August, a California appeals court ruled against the Marin County Employees’ Association in its case challenging a 2012 state law reining in pension-spiking abuses – i.e., those various end-of-career enhancements (unused leave, bonuses, etc.) that public employees use to gin up their final salary and their lifetime retirement pay.

One of the few areas of widespread agreement at the Capitol on public-employee pensions involves spiking. Gov. Jerry Brown signed into law the Public Employees’ Pension Reform Act of 2013, known as PEPRA, to reduce escalating pension liabilities. Most of its provisions applied to new hires only. The governor also signed related legislation, Assembly Bill 187. Its goal was to “exclude from the definition of compensation earnable any compensation determined … to have been paid to enhance a member’s retirement benefit.”

This limitation on pension spiking was implemented by the Marin County Employees’ Retirement Association to help the county reduce its pension debt. As the court explained, “Reaction to the change in policy was almost immediate.” Five public-employee associations filed suit, claiming that a ban on these spiking conditions reduced promised levels of pay to their members. They argued this was an impairment of their “vested rights.” Vesting confers ownership rights.

Even though the dollars at issue are relatively minimal, the case has become a major flashpoint. California courts have long abided by something known as the “California Rule.” It’s not a law or even a rule, actually. It refers to a series of court rulings concluding that once a pension benefit is granted to public employees by a legislative body (board of supervisors, city council, state legislature), it can never be reduced – even going forward.

In the private sector, for instance, courts allow employers to reduce pension benefits, starting tomorrow. Employees could be paid everything promised to the point of the benefit change, but they can have certain benefits removed or reduced in the future. That’s seen as reasonable given they haven’t earned them yet. It’s different in the public sector.

In California (and a number of other states that follow a similar rule), these benefits can never be reduced. The problem, from a public-finance point of view, is that reducing benefits for new hires only won’t address the bulk of the debt problem until those employees start retiring in 25 or 30 years. Fixing the current debt problem requires dealing with current employees.

Ironically, almost all of the benefit increases public agencies have granted to union members since the 1999 passage of Senate Bill 400 have been done “retroactively.” In other words, the courts have allowed public agencies to give a boost in pensions to public employees for years they previously have worked – but they won’t allow those same agencies to reduce future benefits for years that have yet to be worked. This is politically controversial, but there’s little debate that such a rule has been followed by the courts.

“Public employees earn a vested right to their pension benefits immediately upon acceptance of employment and … such benefits cannot be reduced without a comparable advantage being provided,” according to the plaintiffs, as quoted in the appeals court decision. “A corollary of this approach is that public employees are also entitled to any increase in benefits conferred during their employment, beyond the benefit in place when they began.” In this view, compensation is a one-way ratchet.

This understanding has largely undermined every major reform proposed in California. For instance, the courts gutted the city of San Jose’s voter-approved 2012 pension-reform initiative because it rolled back future benefits for current employees. And the“California Rule” has been the obstacle that has stopped reformers from coming up with other similar approaches.

In this case, Justice James Richman ruled, “(W)hile a public employee does have a ‘vested right’ to a pension, that right is only to a ‘reasonable’ pension – not an immutable entitlement to the most optimal formula of calculating that pension. And the Legislature may, prior to the employee’s retirement, alter the formula, thereby reducing the anticipated pension. So long as the Legislature’s modifications do not deprive the employee of a ‘reasonable’ pension, there is no constitutional violation. Here, the Legislature did not forbid the employer from providing the specified items to an employee as compensation, only the purely prospective inclusion of those items in the computation of the employee’s pension.”

The judge pointed to conclusions from California’s watchdog agency, the Little Hoover Commission, pointing to uncontrollable unfunded pension liabilities. As the commission explained, “To provide immediate savings of the scope needed, state and local governments must have the flexibility to alter future, unaccrued retirement benefits for current workers.” The commission pointed to spiking as a particular problem. This report, he wrote, is part of what motivated the state Legislature and governor to implement reform.

Furthermore, the judge pointed to previous cases acknowledging that government entities have the right to “make reasonable modifications and changes in the pensions system ‘to permit adjustments in accord with changing conditions and at the same time maintain the integrity of the system and carry out its beneficent policy.’” This echoes what myriad pension reformers have argued: agencies are not stuck watching their systems go over the cliff. They have the right and duty to make adjustments to assure their future solvency.

If the California Supreme Court sides with the unions, then local governments will have fewer options left to gain control of their pension debts. If the court agrees with Judge Richman, then pension reform could be a brand new ballgame – although it’s unclear whether the court might toss the California Rule entirely or simply allow localities to change some of the benefits within the framework of that rule.

The court has 60 days to decide whether to consider the matter, according to reports. Unions and reformers will no doubt be watching the court’s decision closely.

Steven Greenhut is Western region director for the R Street Institute. Write to him at sgreenhut@rstreet.org.

This piece was originally published by CalWatchdog.com

Average Costa Mesa Firefighter Makes Nearly $250,000 Per Year. Why? Pensions.

Does that fact have your attention? Because media consultants insist we preface anything of substance with a hook like this. And it even has the virtue of being true! And now, for those with the stomach for it, let’s descend into the weeds.

According to payroll and benefit data reported by the city of Costa Mesa to the California State Controller, during 2015 the average full-time firefighter made $240,886. During the same period, the average full-time police officer in Costa Mesa made $201,330. In both cases, that includes the cost, on average, for their regular pay, overtime, “other pay,” the city’s payment to CalPERS for the city’s share, the city’s payment to CalPERS of a portion of the employee’s share, and the city’s payments for the employee’s health and dental insurance benefits.

And if you think that’s a lot, just wait. Because the payments CalPERS is demanding from Costa Mesa – and presumably every other agency that participates in their pension system – are about to go way up.

We have obtained two innocuous documents recently delivered to the city of Costa Mesa from CalPERS. They are entitled “SAFETY FIRE PLAN OF THE CITY OF COSTA MESA (CalPERS ID: 5937664258), Annual Valuation Report as of June 30, 2015,” (click to download) and a similar document “SAFETY POLICE PLAN OF THE CITY OF COSTA MESA (CalPERS ID 5937664258), Annual Valuation Report as of June 30, 2015,” (click to download). Buried in the bureaucratic jargon are notices of significant increases to how much Costa Mesa is going to have to pay CalPERS each year. In particular, behold the following two tables that appear on page five of each letter:

Projected Employer Contributions to CalPERS  –  Costa Mesa Police

employer-contributions-to-calpers

Projected Employer Contributions to CalPERS  –  Costa Mesa Firefighters

projected-employer-contributions-to-calpers-costa-mesa-firefighters

In the rarefied air of pension arcana, pension systems can get away with a lot. If you’re a glutton for punishment, read these notices from CalPERS in their entirety and see if, anywhere, they bother to explain the big picture. They don’t. The big picture is this:  For years CalPERS has underestimated how much they are going to pay in pensions and they have overestimated how much their investments will earn, and as a result they are continuously increasing how much cities have to pay them. This notice is just the latest in a predictable cascade of bad news from pension systems to cities and other agencies.

Coming down to earth just a bit, consider the two terms on the above charts, “Normal Cost %” and “UAL $.” It would be proper to wonder why they represent one with a percentage and one with actual dollars, but rather than indulge in futile speculation, here are some definitions. “Normal Cost” is how much the city pays (never mind that the city also pays a portion of the employee shares – we’ll get to that) into the pension system if it is fully funded. The reason pension systems are NOT fully funded is because, again, year after year, CalPERS underestimated how much they would pay out in pensions to retirees and overestimated how much they would earn. Read this disclaimer that appears on page five of the letters: “The table below shows projected employer contributions … assuming CalPERS earns 7.5 percent every fiscal year thereafter, and assuming that all other actuarial assumptions will be realized.”

And when the “Normal Cost” payments aren’t enough, and the system is underfunded, voila, along comes the “UAL $,” that bigger catch-up payment that is necessary to restore financial health to the fund. “UAL” refers to “unfunded actuarial liability,” the present value of all eventual payments to retirees, and “UAL $” refers to the payments necessary to reduce it to a healthy level. Notice that for firefighters this catch-up payment is set to increase from $4.2 million in 2017 to $6.8 million in 2022, and for police it is set to increase from $5.8 million in 2017 to $10.1 million in 2022. This is in a small city that in 2015 employed an estimated 125 full-time police officers and 75 full-time firefighters.

As always, it must be emphasized that the point of all this is not to disparage police or firefighters. No reasonable person fails to appreciate the work they do, or the fact that they stand between us and violence, mayhem, catastrophe and chaos. And it is particularly difficult for those of us who are part of the overwhelming majority of citizens who appreciate and respect members of public safety to have to disclose and publicize the facts of their unaffordable pensions.

The following charts, using data downloaded from the CA State Controller, put these costs into perspective:

Average and Median Employee Compensation by Department
Costa Mesa – Full time employees – 2015

average-and-median-employee-compensation-by-department

In the above chart, before sorting by department and calculating averages and medians, we eliminated employees who worked as temps or only worked for part of the year. This provides a more accurate estimate of how much full-time workers really make in Costa Mesa. Bear in mind that most part-time employees still receive pension benefits, as will be shown on a subsequent chart. As it is, during 2015 the average full-time police officer in Costa Mesa was paid total wages of $121,636, about 15 percent of that in overtime. But they then collected another $79,694 in city paid benefits, including $59,337 paid by the city towards their pension, AND another $11,562 that the city paid towards their pension that the State Controller vaguely describes as “Defined Benefit Paid by Employer.” Total 2015 police pay: $201,330.

Also on the above chart, one can see that during 2015 the average full-time firefighter in Costa Mesa was paid total wages of $150,227, about 32 percent of that in overtime. They then collected another $90,659 in city paid benefits, including $72,202 paid by the city toward their pension, and as already noted, another $10,440 that the city paid toward the employee’s share of their pension. Total 2015 firefighter pay: $240,886.

To distill this further, the following chart shows, per full-time employee, just how much pensions cost Costa Mesa in 2015 as a percent of regular pay.

Average Employer Pension Payment as % of Regular Pay
Costa Mesa – Full-time employees – 2015

average-employer-pension-payment-as-of-regular-pay

As the above chart demonstrates, employer payments for full-time employee pensions during 2015 already consumed a staggering amount of budget. For police, every dollar of regular pay was matched by 80.5 cents of payments by the city to CalPERS. For firefighters, every dollar of regular pay was matched by a staggering 94.4 cents of payments by the city to CalPERS.

The next chart shows the impact this has on the city of Costa Mesa budget. Depicting total payroll amounts by department, it compares the same variables, total employer pension payments as a percent of total regular pay. As can be seen, the percentages are nearly the same, despite this being for the entire workforce including temporary and part-time employees, some who may not have pension benefits (most do), and many who do not receive top tier pension formulas which the overwhelming majority of full-time public safety employees still receive. As can be seen, for every dollar of regular police pay, CalPERS gets 75 cents from the city, and for every dollar of firefighter pay, CalPERS gets 92 cents from the city.

Total Employer Pension Payment as % of Regular Pay
Costa Mesa – All active employees; full, part-time and temp – 2015

total-employer-pension-payment-as-of-regular-pay

At this point, the impact of CalPERS stated rate increases can be fully appreciated. And because this article, already at nearly 1,000 words, has violated every rule of 21st century social media engagement protocols – keep it short, shallow, simple and sensational – perhaps the next paragraph should be entirely written in bold so it is less likely to be lost in the haze of verbosity. Perhaps a meme is in here somewhere. Perhaps an inflammatory graphic that shall animate the populace. Meanwhile, here goes:

Once CalPERS’s announced increases to the “unfunded payment” are fully implemented, instead of paying $10.9 million per year for police pensions, Costa Mesa will pay $15.2 million per year, i.e., for every dollar in regular police pay, they will pay $1.04 toward police pensions. Similarly, instead of paying CalPERS $6.4 million per year for firefighter pensions, Costa Mesa will pay $9.1 million per year, i.e., for every dollar in regular firefighter pay, they will pay $1.30 towards firefighter pensions.

Wow.

So just how much do Costa Mesa’s retired police and firefighters collect in pensions? Repeatedly characterized by government union officials as “modest,” shall we report and you decide? The following table, using data originally sourced from CalPERS and downloaded from Transparent California, are the pensions earned by Costa Mesa retirees in 2015. Excluded from this list in order to present a more representative profile are all pre-2000 retirees, since retirement pensions were greatly enhanced after the turn of the century, and it is those more recent pensions, not the earlier ones, that are causing the financial havoc. Also excluded because the benefit amounts are not representative and the retirement years are not disclosed, are all “beneficiary” pensions, which survivors receive.

Average Pensions by Years of Service
Costa Mesa retirees – 2015

average-pensions-by-years-of-service

While these averages are impressive – work 30 years and you get a six-figure pension – they grossly understate what Costa Mesa public safety retirees actually get. There are at least four reasons for this: (1) The data provided doesn’t screen for part-time workers. Many retirees may have put in decades of service with the city, but only worked, for example, 20-hour weeks. They would still accrue a pension, but it would not be nearly as much as it would be if they’d worked full time. (2) Nearly all full-time employees are also granted “other post-employment benefits,” primarily health insurance. It is reasonable to assume that for public safety retirees, the value of these other post employment benefits is at least $10,000 per year. (3) Because CalPERS did not disclose what department retirees worked in during their active careers, this data set is for all of Costa Mesa’s retirees. That means it includes miscellaneous employees who receive pensions that are, while very generous, are not nearly as good as the pensions that public safety retirees receive. (4) While recent reforms have begun to curb this practice, it has been common at least through 2014 for retirees to purchase “air time,” wherein for a ridiculously low sum they are permitted to claim more years of service than they actually worked. It is common for retirees, for example, to purchase five years of air time, so when their pension benefit is initially calculated, instead of multiplying, for example, 20 years of service times a 3.0 percent multiplier times their final salary, they are permitted to claim 25 years of service.

All of this, of course, is dense gobbledygook to the average millennial Facebook denizen, or, for that matter, to the average politician. To be fair, it’s hard even for the financial professionals hired by the public employee unions to acknowledge that maybe 7.5 percent (or even 6.5 percent) annual investment returns will not continue for funds as big as CalPERS, or that history is no indicator of future performance. And even if they know this, they’re under tremendous pressure to keep silent. So the normal contribution remains too low, and the catch-up payments mushroom.

Finally, to be eminently fair, we must acknowledge that since modest bungalows on lots so small you have to choose between a swing set or a trampoline for the kids are now going for about a million bucks each in most of Orange County, making a quarter million per year ain’t what it used to be. But there’s the rub. Because until the people who work for the government are subject to the same economic challenges as the citizens they serve, it is very unlikely we’ll see any pressure to lower the cost of living. Everything – land, energy, transportation, water, materials, etc. – costs far more than it should, thanks to deliberate political policies and financial mismanagement that creates artificial scarcity. But hey – artificial scarcity inflates asset bubbles, which helps keep those pension funds marginally solvent.

Cost-of-living reform, if such a thing can be characterized, must accompany pension reform. What virulent meme might encapsulate all of this complexity?

Ed Ring is the president of the California Policy Center.

The Ever-Growing California Pension Gap

As reported by the Los Angeles Times:

With the stroke of a pen, California Gov. Gray Davis signed legislation that gave prison guards, park rangers, Cal State professors and other state employees the kind of retirement security normally reserved for the wealthy.

More than 200,000 civil servants became eligible to retire at 55 — and in many cases collect more than half their highest salary for life. California Highway Patrol officers could retire at 50 and receive as much as 90% of their peak pay for as long as they lived.

Proponents sold the measure in 1999 with the promise that it would impose no new costs on California taxpayers. The state employees’ pension fund, they said, would grow fast enough to pay the bill in full.

They were off — by billions of dollars — and taxpayers will bear the consequences for decades to come. …

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Average “Full Career” CalPERS Retirement Package Worth $70,000 Per Year

Calpers headquarters is seen in Sacramento, California, October 21, 2009. REUTERS/Max Whittaker

“‘What makes the ‘$100,000 Club’ some magic number denoting abuse other than the claims of anti-pension zealots?’ said Dave Low, chairman of Californians for Retirement Security, a coalition of 1.6 million public workers and retirees.”

This quote from a government union spokesperson, and others, were dutifully collected as part of Orange County Register reporter Teri Sforza’s eminently balanced reporting on the latest pension data, in her August 8th article entitled “The ‘100K Club’ – public retirees with pensions over $100,000 – are a growing group.”

In the article, Sforza’s team evaluated data released by Transparent California on 2015 CalPERS pensions, and reported the number of pensioners receiving $100,000 or more per year was 3.5% of total retirees, up from 2.9% in 2013. That truly does seem like a low percentage, but it ignores two key factors, (1) the total retiree pool includes people who only worked a few years and barely vested a pension, and (2) the total retiree pool includes people who worked many decades, sometimes 30 or 40 years or more, but they only worked part-time during their lengthy careers.

So if you restrict your pool of participants to those who worked a full career, and retired within the last 10 years, what percentage of those retirees would belong to the $100,000 club? As it turns out, there are 75,279 CalSTRS retirees who worked more than 25 years and less than 35 years, retiring after 2006. And as it turns out, 9,763 of them, or 13%, are receiving pensions in excess of $100,000 per year.

Moreover, CalSTRS doesn’t report the value of retirement health benefits and other retirement benefits, which almost certainly exceed $10,000 per year. If you make this reasonable assumption, you now have 14,901 CalPERS retirees, or 19% of our 75,279 pool of full career retirees, receiving a retirement package worth over $100,000 per year. Worth noting – we didn’t have the data necessary to screen the part-timers out of this pool. If we did, the numbers would be higher.

So if you use the appropriate denominator, the “$100 Club” isn’t 3.5% of the pie, it’s 19%, but so what? It’s still not a very big slice. Here’s where the flip-side of “full career pension” comes into play. Most people don’t work 25-35 years in public service. But most of them do vest their pension benefits, which can be vested in as little as five years. What happens when someone quits after five years, and only goes on to collect, say, a $20,000 per year pension? Someone else is hired, they work five years, and they also qualify to eventually collect a $20,000 per year pension. Then someone else, and then someone else – until you have three or four (or more) people who are all going to receive a $20,000 per year pension – for a job that one person could have performed if they’d stayed with the agency for a full career.

This is a critical point to understand. The significance of “full career” pensions is this: The taxpayer will fund pensions at that level of generosity, even if the benefit is split among multiple partial career participants – people who presumably worked elsewhere (where they also saved for retirement) during the majority of their careers. Should you expect a $100,000 per year pension if you only worked for five years? Of course not. But that’s what taxpayers are funding – whether it goes to one person, or to five people who worked a few years each to collectively fill one person’s full-career position in government.

This is why, when you are considering whether or not pensions are fair and affordable, the full career average pension is the only relevant measure. So what is the full career average?

For CalPERS in 2015, participants with between 25 and 34 years of work who retired in the last ten years, on average, received a pension of $60,277.  Add to that the value of their retirement health benefits and other retirement benefits and the average was probably closer to $70,000 per year.

Just for comparison, for Orange County (OCERS) retirees in 2015, participants with between 25 and 34 years of work who retired in the last ten years, on average, received a pension of $73,628.  Add to that the value of their retirement health benefits and other retirement benefits – information which OCERS also refuses to provide – and the average was probably over $80,000 per year. As for the OCERS “$100,000 Club”? Within the pool of full career retirees as described, and accounting for retirement health benefits, 31% of them were members. Nearly one in three.

Public sector spokespersons frequently point out that public employees don’t get Social Security. Actually, about half of them do get Social Security, but never mind that detail. Because the maximum Social Security benefit, which one must wait until they are 68 years old to receive, is a whopping $31,668 per year.

Calling critics of this double standard “anti-pension zealots” is lazy rhetoric. The problem with defined benefits is not that they exist. The problem is that we have set up a system where public employees operate under a set of retirement benefit formulas and incentives that are roughly four times better than what private sector workers can expect. Yet these private sector workers pay the taxes to fund these pensions and bail them out when the investment returns falter.

Ed Ring is the president of the California Policy Center.

Number of public retirees with pensions over $100,000 skyrockets

As reported by the Orange County Register:

Back in 2005, just 1,841 retirees pulled down more than $100,000 a year in pension checks from the California Public Employees’ Retirement System.

A decade later, membership in the so-called $100K Club had swelled by nearly 20,000 souls.

CalPERS data provided to the conservative-leaning group Transparent California, and analyzed by the Register, found that 21,652 public retirees received annual benefits of more than $100,000 in 2015.

That’s a jump of 28 percent in just two years – which might seem jarring at first blush, but actually represents a slowdown in the club’s explosive growth of late. Between 2005 and 2009, membership in CalPERS’ $100K Club tripled. Then, between 2009 and 2013, it nearly tripled again, largely a function of higher working salaries and more generous retirement formulas.

Orange County landed just one retired worker on the Top 25 statewide: Dave Ream, longtime Santa Ana city manager, at $263,202. Los Angeles-area cities, special districts and universities dominated the Top 25. …

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