Brea First: Unfunded Pension Liability

unfunded liabilityUnfunded pension liability was the topic at last night’s Brea First meeting. A very detailed description and analysis was presented by Pete Constant and Truong Bui from the Reason Foundation. When I say detailed, I’m mean deep into the numbers, tiered water rates, where did you get your PhD. sort of detailed.

To their credit, and thanks to a stream of astute and probing questions from the audience, the details provided a backdrop upon which some very down-to-earth discussion emerged. While understanding how we ended up in this hole isn’t without value, finding a way out is the real issue.

A brief history lesson.

In 1999 Council adopted an enhancement of the city’s defined benefit retirement program providing Public Safety personnel with a guaranteed 90% retirement at 30 years of service (Simonoff, Perry, Moore, Daucher yes; Vargas no). This greatly exacerbated Brea’s unfunded liability. Had Brea chosen a defined contribution plan instead we wouldn’t be having this conversation.

In 2000 Brea was overfunded to the tune of $15 million. I’ll let that sink in for a minute. We were ahead of the game by $15 million bucks! Expressed in 2016 dollars, that would be $17+ million – almost three times what we just deposited into our PARS account (Public Agency Retirement Services).

It was downhill from there.

pension liabilityIn 2001 and 2009, coinciding with the two recessions, funding rate for retirement had dropped from an enviable 133% in 2000 to 60% in 2009. Today’s unfunded pension liability, conservatively, is $85 million dollars and market value assets are only 74.9% of what is required.

The $85 million relies upon an overly generous assumed Rate of Return that CalPERS projects to be 7.5%. The average Rate of Return earned by CalPERS investments over the last 15 years is 5.2%. I’m not sure who they’re trying to fool, participants or themselves or both?

Staff has suggested to Council that maintaining an 80% funded level is sufficient. It is not.

That assumption puts all Brea services in jeopardy, including public safety. Further, the $6 million transferred from year end surplus into the PARS account is barely a drop in the bucket. The road to hell is paved with good intentions.

If you’ve ever tried to pay off a credit card relying on making minimum payments, you know exactly how ludicrous this is.

Where the state comes in.

The decades old dinosaur that is CalPERS operates using a very complex set of calculations to determine Rate of Return and Discount Rate. I’ll save you the rocket science, you can find the full reports here if you’re so inclined.

Suffice it to say that CalPERS is systemically malfunctioning and in dire need of a major overhaul. This is the other half of the problem/solution formula. Literally thousands of agencies state wide share in this multi-billion dollar unfunded liability. Public employee pensions are constitutionally guaranteed.

So, no matter what Brea decides to do to fulfill our local responsibility, funding our pension plan, we also have to bring pressure to bear on Sacramento to adopt the constitutional amendments that govern how public pensions are managed.

Joining forces.

I suppose it isn’t out of the question to think cities might band together to lobby Sacramento. Brea keeps a high priced lobbying firm on retainer, other cities must do the same. There is strength in numbers.

League of California CitiesOh, and as longstanding members of the League of California Cities I would think we could turn to them for assistance too. After all, that’s what they do… right, they advocate on behalf of member cities.

But wait, their employees pension plan is CalPERS. Is it possible there is a conflict of interest here?

Where does Brea start?

pension liabilityWe’re in a hole. A deep hole. We need to stop digging and find a way out.

Finding that way out must start with the Council. They need to create a plan to raise our pension funding level from 74.9% to 100%. Not over some protracted length of time. Now. Anything less than 100% adds to our unfunded liability.

Council must commit to a vigorous debt reduction plan, eliminating our unfunded liability.

It’s not as simple as tacking on another half a percent or so sales tax targeted only to pay off the debt. That’s illegal. And we’re not likely to stumble across some windfall and miraculously escape. It will take sacrifice.

City services will be seriously impacted. Public health and safety services will be effected as well. If you thought coping with the drought has been tough, you ain’t seen nothin’ yet.

pension liabilityOkay Council, the ball is in your court. It looks like Brea First is committed to holding you accountable… so am I.

Download PDFs of the Reason Foundation Brea Unfunded Pension Liability Presentation and Report by clicking on the blue links.