Claremont Insider: Pension Tension

Monday, August 9, 2010

Pension Tension

To follow on Friday's post about Bell, CalPERS, and Glenn Southard, we came across a New York Times article by Ron Lieber titled "The Coming Class War Over Public Pensions." (The NYT has toned the title down to "Battle Looms Over Huge Costs of Public Pensions.")

Lieber writes that our labor force is evolving into a two-class system. On the one hand are public employees, who continue to receive generous, taxpayer-funded defined benefit pensions with built-in cost of living increases. On the other are private sector employees, most of whom do not have pensions but who may, if they work at the right place and happen to be savers, have 401(k) or IRA accounts in which they, not taxpayers, bear all of the risk.

According to Lieber, taxpayers will likely be asked to rescue underfunded public pension plans for cities and states when those begin to go underwater. As Claremont city council member Peter Yao said a couple weeks ago, our own employee' CalPERS pension account is underfunded to the tune of up to $50 million, something that the majority of the council (Elderkin, Pedroza, and Schroeder) and the Claremont 400, refuse to admit.

Claremont's pension problems are just one small part of a national problem. How much money are we talking about? Lieber tells us:

At stake is at least $1 trillion. That’s trillion, with a “t,” as in titanic and terrifying.

The figure comes from a study by the Pew Center on the States that came out in February. Pew estimated a $1 trillion gap as of fiscal 2008 between what states had promised workers in the way of retiree pension, health care and other benefits and the money they currently had to pay for it all. And some economists say that Pew is too conservative and the problem is two or three times as large.

So a question of extraordinary financial, political, legal and moral complexity emerges, something that every one of us will be taking into town meetings and voting booths for years to come: Given how wrong past pension projections were, who should pay to fill the 13-figure financing gap?

As Yao could tell Lieber, here in Claremont we won't be having those public meetings until the City is at the verge of bankruptcy. The same is true with nearly every other municipality in the state and nation. As a result, the people Lieber calls "have-nots," private sector workers, will also be the ones asked to bear the burden of maintaining the lifestyles of our current public sector retirees, who for the most part refuse to give any concessions on their benefits.

Our public sector pension costs are compounded by the practice of pension spiking, in which public workers in their final year of employment manipulate the rules to drive up the value of their pensions. CalPERS offers a couple different ways of determining pension payments. Under many, such as in the city of Bell, the amount is determined by the employee's final year of compensation. If employees game the system by working a lot of overtime or by cashing out unused vacation time, their pensions can end up significantly higher than their final base salary.

Those spiked pensions cause additional problems for already underfunded CalPERS plans because the employees end up earning much more than can be covered by the money they and their employers actually paid into the system.

To no one's surprise, former Bell city manager Robert Rizzo has become the poster boy for outrageous public pensions. The Daily Bulletin ran an article Saturday by reporter Sandra Emerson, who explained that as a result of how CalPERS formulates pension payments, the city of Rancho Cucamonga, where Rizzo worked for about eight years, will be on the hook for about $125,000 of Rizzo's estimated $650,000 a year pension, assuming Rizzo survives his tarring and feathering long enough to collect.

As we said Friday, when former Claremont city manager Glenn Southard retired from Indio, his base salary was $300,000 a year. However, Southard also could have earned as much a $30,000 performance bonus, and he cashed out $162,000 in unused vacation and sick time. If Southard's pension is based simply on his final year of earnings, and if any bonus and accured vacation/sick time count towards that amount, he could end up with a pension well in excess of his salary.

Whatever pension Southard gets, because of CalPERS' crazy rules, Claremont will be on the hook for a considerable portion of his pension. Because Southard worked here for 17 years, Claremont will have to pay for those 17 years, but the payout will be based on his final year in Indio. For Claremont's share of his retirement, Glenn will qualify for 2.5% of whatever that final Indio figure was times 17 (each year that he worked here).

The California Foundation for Fiscal Responsibility (CFFR) has a website that takes public information from CalPERS and CalSTRS (the California State Teachers' Retirement System) and posts the names and annual pension payments for anyone getting more than $100,000 a year.

Southard isn't on there yet because the figures haven't been updated since his retirement earlier this year, but another familiar Claremont personality did have her information posted. Our own Bridget Healy, Southard's right-hand woman in Claremont and Indio, retired in 2008 .

CFFR puts Healy's CalPERS pension at $166,701.84, of which Claremont will pay around $100,000 for Healy's roughly 18 years in Claremont, based on her $220,000 final year's salary in Indio. Healy, who seems to be maneuvering for another run at a Claremont city council seat, never has explained how she would manage her conflict of interest when it comes to pension matters here. However, we're going to guess that Healy's the pull-the-ladder-up-after-me type and probably won't have any qualms when it comes to cutting future employee benefits.

Here from CFFR are the Indio retirees in the six-figure club, soon to be joined by our friend Glenn:

And, in case you were wondering about our fair city, here is our $100,000+ CalPERS club:

We also present the Claremont Unified School District's CalSTRS pension high rollers:

There will be others joining these lists. Former Claremont Human Services Director Dick Guthrie, for instance, isn't on Claremont's CalPERS list, though his pension has to be well over $100,000. Former Claremont Community Services Director Mark Harmon and former Community Facilities Manager Mark Hodnick, too will join the exorbitant pensions club.

We're also struck by the presence of a number of prominent Claremonters on these lists. Council member Larry Schroeder is represented on the city of Lakewood's CalPERS pension rolls. Also, two influential members of the Claremont League of Women Voters own hefty public pensions: Bridget Healy and Anita Hughes, the wife of the late former Claremont mayor and CUSD assistant superintendent Alexander Hughes.

Yet another person, LWV president and Claremont Police Commissioner Barbara Musselman, is a former San Bernardino County Human Resources Director and receives a large San Bernardino County Employees' Retirement Association pension (SBCERA doesn't make its individual pension payouts readily available for the public).

Claremont's unsustainable pension obligations are the number one long term threat to our city's financial security. Yet, no one in any position of power, with the exceptions of Council members Yao and Corey Calaycay, are willing to deal with that threat. Instead, groups like the local League of Women Voters, who remained preoccupied with rehabilitating former Claremont mayor Ellen Taylor's image and helping Healy get elected to the council, are content to allow the City fly into a fiscal abyss.

One would expect people like Musselman or Healy to express a little more empathy and gratitude toward the people who fund their wealthy lifestyles. Instead, we constantly see them pushing this or that costly toy - a trolley, say - that only adds to the burden borne by the working stiffs who have to pay for for Musselman's and Healy's retirements as well as their own.

Lost in all this is the unfairness of forcing the public, the majority of whom do not have the luxury of unearned, spiked pension benefits with automatic cost-of-living increases, to rescue these underfunded public pension systems when they become insolvent. If our local and state elected officials and their supporters continue on their present course, that class war that Ron Lieber wrote of will move very quickly from metaphor to reality.