The new era of local government: Taxpayers can expect to pay more but get less.
By STEVEN MALANGA
The Wall Street Journal: March 31, 2012
What does it look like when a city of almost 300,000 flirts with becoming America’s largest ever city to go bankrupt? Welcome to Stockton, Calif.
An inland seaport in California’s Central Valley, Stockton exemplifies the fiscal hole that many municipalities have dug for their taxpayers. Starting in the mid-1990s, the city began attracting frenzied bargain hunters who drove up home prices nearly threefold. Then the California home market crashed spectacularly in 2007. Foreclosures soared, tax revenues declined, and Stockton discovered that the weight of its fiscal commitments might spell bankruptcy.
The city’s fiscal history “has eerie similarities to a Ponzi scheme,” says Bob Deis, the city manager Stockton hired in 2010. Over the years, the city promised employees huge—and unfunded—salaries and benefits, so when trouble struck officials began cutting back on services such as police and fire protection, plus libraries and parks.
Stockton’s current leadership, which has already suspended some payments to bondholders and is negotiating with creditors and unions, is frank about its past shortcomings. In last year’s budget, Stockton admitted that its biggest problem has been a lack of transparency resulting in a host of “hidden costs” in labor agreements for “obligations that are often difficult for citizens to identify or understand.”
The city recognizes more than 100 different categories of “additional pay” that employees can earn to boost their salaries but that still make basic compensation packages appear reasonable to the outsider. A fire captain earning an annual base salary of $101,000, for example, can easily increase that by $35,000 thanks to additional pay for everything from automatic annual stipends for uniforms (regardless of need) to more schooling.
Stockton safety employees with 30 years of service receive 90% of their highest working salary as a pension, with cost-of-living adjustments up to 2% annually for the rest of their lives. And while the state requires workers to contribute between 7% and 9% of their salary toward pensions, Stockton agreed in a series of agreements with various municipal unions going back to the 1990s to pay the worker portion of the contribution along with its 20% employer share.
Stockton couldn’t afford this rich program even in boom times, so officials played risky investment games. In 2007, the city borrowed $125 million and put the money into Calpers, the giant California pension fund, betting that investment managers could earn more than the interest Stockton owed on the debt. When the market tanked, Calpers lost 24%-30% of the loan’s principal, according to city budget documents.
Now Stockton is stuck with interest costs on top of pension obligations that pile an additional 48% onto basic employee pay. Thus a public safety worker earning $70,000 annually costs the city another $33,000 in interest and pension-borrowing costs.
Perched precariously atop this mountain of obligations are retiree health benefits. Stockton officials awarded these to city employees in a series of votes in the 1990s but made no effort to fund them, intending simply to pay costs out of their budget as workers retired. As hundreds did just that over the years, the costs grew. Next year, the city’s fiscal documents project, retiree health costs will surpass those of the city’s regular work force. At last count the city’s unfunded liabilities for retiree health care are above $400 million.
Stockton Mayor Ann Johnston voted for these expensive measures when she served on the city council. “We didn’t have projections into the future what the costs might be,” she told the Record, a Stockton newspaper, earlier this month. She added, “I learned that you don’t make decisions without looking into the future.”
Council votes to approve ever-greater benefits were often unanimous, according to Record columnist Michael Fitzgerald. “Nobody gave thought to how it was eventually going to be paid for,” says Mr. Deis, the city manager.
The future is bleak, as the city has only $165 million in its general budget to provide police, fire and other basic services to 292,000 citizens. The police force has shrunk by about 100 officers, or about 25%, in the last two years. Residents report long wait-times after making 911 calls, and police only respond to emergencies.
“Let’s say you come home and find your house burglarized,” Stockton public information officer Pete Smith said recently. “The front door is open but the house is safe. There’s a good chance that you won’t get a uniform officer” to come investigate. Stockton’s unions have seized on residents’ fears: “Welcome to the second most dangerous city in California,” blared billboards posted around town by the police union.
Stockton is the first city required by a new, union-backed state law to try to avoid bankruptcy by entering into mediation with creditors and employees. The law dictates that only the results of these negotiations—not their proceedings—be made public, forcing Mr. Deis and other officials into a quiet period that may last several months. This is a final indignity for a city trying to turn itself around with “transparency.”
The big question is whether Stockton is only the tip of an iceberg. The 50 states alone have promised their employees retirement health-care benefits amounting to a $627 billion future liability—and funded only 4% of that cost, according to a recent accounting by Bloomberg Data. Unfunded state and municipal pension liabilities range up to $4 trillion, depending on what future investment assumptions you make.
Most local governments may never reach insolvency, but the rising costs of these benefits already crowd out other spending, including on police and fire protection. Thanks to unaffordable promises made by politicians who never bothered to total up the costs, we’re in a new era of local government in America: Taxpayers can expect to pay more but get less.
Mr. Malanga is a senior fellow at the Manhattan Institute.
A version of this article appeared March 31, 2012, on page A11 in some U.S. editions of The Wall Street Journal, with the headline: How Stockton, California Went Broke in Plain Sight.