The landscape for public employee pensions shifted in 2014 as federal judges gave credence to the idea that pension benefits may be cut in bankruptcy. This challenges the long held idea that pension benefits are impervious to cuts and most observers are wondering just how significant this shift will be going forward.
This fall, city leaders watched as federal judges approved debt-cutting bankruptcy plans in Stockton and Detroit, ending two of the largest municipal bankruptcy cases in U.S. history. Many speculated both cities could do more to ease their fiscal problems by making significant cuts and structural changes to public pensions. However, both judges demurred and moved forward with plans that eased a portion of the cities’ financial obligations, but largely protected pensions. The failure to significantly address public pension debt and make structural changes to the pension systems in both Stockton and Detroit does not bode well for the economic future of either city post-bankruptcy. It also presents an interesting conundrum for other cities in dire fiscal distress that bear significant pension costs and unfunded liabilities. Are more cities to follow the path to pension cuts in bankruptcy?
In Detroit, the nation’s largest municipal bankruptcy case ended on November 7, fifteen months after it began. The restructuring plan approved by Judge Steven Rhodes slashed $7 billion in debts with bondholders receiving between 14 and 74 cents on the dollar back from the city. Public pensioners did not see cuts as deep, thanks in part to the likes of Van Gogh and Renoir. Detroit’s so-called “grand bargain” transferred ownership of part of the Detroit Institute of Arts collection from the city to the nonprofit running the museum for $816 million. The money, to be paid out over 20 years, comes from state taxpayers and privately-donated funds raised to offset deeper pension cuts. Pensioners in Detroit’s general retirement system are taking a 4.5 percent cut to their monthly pension check, will no longer receive cost-of-living adjustments, and will see a reduction in medical benefits. Some members who received excess annuity payments from the city will also be required to pay them back. Police and firefighter pensioners will only see a reduction in cost-of-living adjustments from 2.25 percent to 1 percent annually.
The pension cuts, which have been called “modest” by both the Wall Street Journal and NPR are exactly that. Detroit’s unfunded pension benefits are still a risk to the city’s fiscal health. And the system still relies on unrealistic rates of return when calculating required pension system contributions—the General Retirement System assumes a 7.9 percent annual return and the Police and Fire Retirement System assumes 8.0 percent, even though the city has only been earning an average of 5.89 percent for the general system and 5.5 percent for the police and fire system over the last 10 years, from 2004 to 2013.
In Stockton, even less was done to address the city’s pension problems despite a golden opportunity to make significant reforms. On October 1, Judge Christopher Klein ruled that the city could reduce its payments to CalPERS and exit its contract with the pension administrator if the city wanted. It was in his purview to cut the pensions if he saw that as the city’s best course of action. But the city chose not to modify its pension benefits or leave CalPERS. On October 30, the fourth largest U.S. municipal bankruptcy case was settled when Judge Klein approved Stockton’s bankruptcy plan, leaving existing pension benefits intact. The city agreed to pay most bond creditors between 50 to 100 cents on the dollar. Investment firm and Stockton creditor Franklin Templeton received only $4.3 million back from a $36 million loan (or 12 cents on the dollar).
Judge Klein noted the reason he left public pensions untouched was because public workers had already suffered other cutbacks, including having their salaries and healthcare benefits reduced, and because redoing current employee pensions would not be a simple task. Franklin Templeton disagrees and is appealing the judge-approved plan at the Ninth Circuit Court for further remedies.
The so-called “California Rule,” which means pension benefits cannot be reduced for current employees, was once thought to be ironclad, but Judge Klein’s ruling opens up the possibility for a future bankrupt California city to challenge it by choosing to cut pensions or leave CalPERS entirely if the city ends up in bankruptcy. Some thought that San Bernardino, another city battling with CalPERS, may take this route. Yet after Klein’s October 31 ruling on Stockton, San Bernardino decided to pay full fare despite the fact that they had previously tried to reduce their payments to CalPERS. Like San Bernardino, Stockton missed an opportunity to shrink its $29 million annual pension costs that have led to both reduced services for the citizens of Stockton and a new sales tax.
Granted, though there are not a lot of cities currently positioned to challenge the California Rule, Moody’s Investors Services points out that Judge Klein’s October 1 ruling allowing cities to cut pensions may give cities more negotiating power with public sector unions. In reality, reducing pension benefits is likely only an option for larger cities where pension obligations and general fund costs make it reasonable to wager tens of millions of dollars on the litigious process so that they can reduce their pension liabilities in the hundreds of millions or billions of dollars. Los Angeles and Chicago, anyone?
Both Stockton and Detroit are still saddled with billions in unfunded pension debt even after exiting bankruptcy. The bankruptcy plans that both cities presented and got approved did nothing to even chip away at existing pension debt. It is unlikely that either city will be able to contain the pension debt that devours their budgets unless structural changes are made to the current defined benefit pension systems they have in place. Other formerly bankrupt cities, like Vallejo, California, have struggled post-bankruptcy because of pension debt and the same type of budgetary problems affecting Stockton and Detroit.
This is only the first couple of rounds of a long bout, as we learned from the lengthy reform processes in San Diego and San Jose. Pension systems like CalPERS have deep pockets and one can sympathize with the city manager or attorney who decides not to go for the option of challenging the increasing costs of pensioners even though legal precedence is tilting in their favor. No doubt, without substantive reform that provides for an affordable and secure retirement system for both the retirees and taxpayers, that pays down the debts sooner rather than later and requires that these jurisdictions pay their full pension costs, Detroit and Stockton will likely be back before a judge begging for more protection. Just ask Vallejo.