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Wednesday, September 13, 2006

A band-aid won't fix it

A friend of mine who's quite knowledgable about pensions attended a professional conference this morning on the City of Portland's police and fire pension and disability problems. Among the speakers was Commissioner Dan Saltzman, who's fronting for the weak set of "reforms" that are about to go before the city's voters. My friend is adamant that the proposed changes will do little to solve the major financial difficulties presented by the bluecoat pensions. He writes:

The Council is totally ignoring the fact that Measure 26-86 does relatively little to address the unfunded liabilities of the plan -- currently north of $1.6 Billion (with a big, fat capital B). These liabilities are not going away and, because they refuse to cut benefits for fire and police (since they're afraid of the unions) they'll only get bigger, eventually (a) hitting the City's financial statements (when GASB reacts to the San Diego crisis and formally requires all cities to account for their unfunded liabilities using standard actuarial methods), which will likely impact the City's credit rating, and (b) swallowing up most of the City's budget -- this monster is 100% funded by property tax revenues, which are subject to Measure 50 caps. The City remains contractually obligated to pay the benefits, so once property taxes are tapped out, that means they'll have to start using the general fund to keep the plan from going insolvent. The actuaries have estimated that the plan's liabilities would go from $1.6B to $8B in 40 years unless some changes are made to the plan's funding structure; measure 26-86 will help a little, but it won't stop the unfunded liabilities from getting to $8B -- at most, it will simply slow down the process.
Hopefully we will have sold our house and moved to Vancouver before the FPD&R becomes the Creature that Ate Portland.
Given the tremendous knowledge base that my correspondent brings to the issue, he's got my attention. Readers?

Comments (28)

I suggest the City Club report is a good place to start to learn more.

http://pdxcityclub.org/pdf/FPDR_2006.pdf (191K)


I believe the City Club folks are not satisfied with the proposed changes, either.

I believe the City Club is probably pretty pleased with the fact that Measure 26-86 is on the ballot at all. I don't have the link handy, but I understand they're going to put a statement in the voter's pamphlet in support of it.

Although it's watered down from the recommendations of both the City Club and City Council-appointed Independent Review Committee (at least one of which recommended that the City start partially funding its existing liabilities), it's important to note that it took the City Club something like 11 tries to get to this stage.

From that perspective, Measure 26-86 is a significant victory for the City Council and City Club -- as well as for us Portlanders -- inasmuch as it will substantially reform the disability aspects of the FPD&R plan -- and I gotta give credit to Commissioner Saltzman for having gotten as far as he did on that front.

Although reforming the disability provisions of FPD&R will get the plan out of the Oregonian headlines and Steve Duin bylines, it unfortunately does little to fix its significant underfunding problems.

With this mayor and gang of four, what does anyone expect - meaningful reform?

Measure 26-86 is just another example of both the power of P/E unions and the utter disrespect they and our city government have for the rest of us.

If failure to solve a major problem like this is a "significant victory", I'd hate to contemplate what defeat would look like.

The concept of leadership is so foreign to this city government that they can't even spell it.

Well, what would you expect of Mr Leonard whose main reason for being in that office is to protect PFDR?

31 years of tax increases is a solution? I get so tired of - "This is the best solution you are going to get. So vote for it."

This is just the start, though, now that 400K names are on PERS (about 15% of the population.) Everytime any meaningful reform happens it will get voted down by the beneficiaries. Locally, the police union has Potter compromised, so he won't do anything either.

The really sad thing is what kind of tax bill we are sticking our kids with. Say hello to 10-day school years.

ld, I find it interesting that your first three paragraphs compliment 26-86 and Saltzmans efforts, but the rest comments on how it "does little to fix" the problems.

It is imperative that we solve the problem because the City is almost broke. If you add in the ongoing, and increasing future debt of our eleven Urban Renewal districts to the FPDR debt, we are shortly doomed like San Diego.

A family in debt by $20 thousand who finds $1 thousand by trimming expenditures does not save the family from foreclosure.

Voting NO on 28-36 does not mean that one doesn't want some of the minute "fixes" of the measure. It means that the voters demand more fixes and soon. The politicians, unions are not getting it.

Surprise Surprise Surprise (in my best Gomer Pyle impression) someone outs the intention (as it was all along) to get to a point of issuing Pension Obligation Bonds.

The GASB has zero, absolutely zero, force of law. It had previously left open (open to local government resolution -- and for good reason) the stark difference between pay-as-you-go and fully funded.

Shall we play a game of catch-up on the issue?

How about accepting the notion of attacking the multi-tier nature of the proposed scheme going forward for pay for future work. (etc)

I'm not an expert on every detail of the City Club report, but I believe that the big difference between City Club's recommendations and the measure is on the disability side (City Club recommended putting Police and Firefighters in the state workmans comp system).

I think the pension reforms are pretty much in line with the City Club recommendations.

City Club has adopted a resolution recommending a yes vote on the ballot measure.

The O wrote on June 15:

On the pension side, the council calls for the city to begin funding the pensions of new officers and firefighters by putting them in the state Public Employees Retirement System. But the pension size bothered some.

Donald Williams, the City Club's president-elect, raised concerns that the pension payments exceed contributions for all other police and fire workers in Oregon.

The problem is as old as democratic governance. I'm pretty certain that Plato was the original source, but I couldn't find a citation...So I'll use this one instead:

A democracy cannot exist as a permanent form of government. It can only exist until the voters discover that they can vote themselves largess from the public treasury." Sir Alex Fraser Tyler (1742-1813)

After reading this I don't know how to vote on this measure. If it is as serious as your source states, this issue seems like the biggest long term financial problem the City has to deal with. Is it better to vote 'yes' to help in a minor way, or vote 'no' and hope for a better solution? Wait a minute..where is the better solution gonna come from? The better question is who is going to make noise about this issue other than the owner of this blog?

The only way out of this is to cut pension benefits substantially -- which seems impossible to pass. So I guess you vote yes on what's being offered, and get ready for another "crisis" in a few more years.

Chris: The City Club supports M 26-86, even though it didn't adopt every single one of the City Club's recommendations. For example, the Independent Review Committee and the City Club both recommended that the disability portion of the system be handled by the City's existing Workers Compensation System. This was, apparently, a non-starter as far as the unions were concerned, and so was not included in the Reform Committee report, which led ultimately to M 26-86.

The Independent Review Commission made a specific recommendation that the City should begin funding (financing) the existing unfunded liability. The City Council's report did not come out as strongly on this as did the IRC (unlike the City Club committee, the IRC actually had a pension actuary as a member of the committee), but the City Club report indicated agreement with the IRC on the financing issue.

Lee: I applaud Saltzman for getting as much as he did on this. At the same time, I think they missed an opportunity to address the funding issues. The disability stories being told by Duin et al were an embarrassment to the City as well as to the Police & Fire unions, when we look back on this (in perhaps 40 years) the City may have missed its opportunity to make inroads on the funding problem. Arguably, it could be tougher to tackle the funding issues once all of the low hanging fruit has been picked (i.e., the disability stuff).

Read the IRC and city club reports. Some of the statistics showing how "rich" the FDP&R benefits are when compared to the new PERS plan are stunning.

When the City Club pushed for FDP&R reform in 1988, the unfunded liability was about $600M -- more than doubling in the past 18 years. It's too bad the City didn't start to fund it back in the late 80s: in hindsight, the bull markets of the mid- to late-90s were a lost funding opportunity.

But hey, Vera used that money for shiny, cute little streetcars and condo subsidies. Just ask Randy Gragg; it was well worth it.

ld, again using the family that has a $20,000 debt and finding only $1000 dollars in savings that can go to the debt, most bankers would cut and run and foreclose. Prudence applies, and that is the situation the City is in. You must come to terms with the situation and say NO. Dribbling the problem out over the long term hurts more than confronting the issue now. I hope the taxpayers see this. Why can't we finally say no to the unions (if that is the case)and the politicians and save our city from bankrupcy?

This is an important and complex topic and I am glad Jack has brought it up. I served on the City Club committee and I hope I can make things more clear.

Your source is wrong that Measure 26-86 would not eliminate the $1.6 billion unfunded liability—but it will take a generation to get out of the hole. The basic structure of the current FPD&R system began in 1942. For whatever reason, leaders at the time created a pay-as-you-go pension program. The city never set aside during the course of police officers and firefighters’ careers. This system is flawed in three major respects. One, it is the most expensive way to pay for retirement benefits. A pre-funded system invest the funds and be able to use the interest to pay benefits. A pay-as-you-go system cannot do this. Two, it causes generational inequity; current taxpayers have to pay the benefits of last generation’s workers. And three, it builds up an unfunded liability that damages the city’s finances.

The retirement portion of Measure 26-86 addresses these problems by phasing out the FPD&R retirement program. While guaranteeing current police officers and firefighters keep the retirement program promised to them, it would place new hires (only) in OPSRP tier of PERS. OPSRP is a hybrid retirement program where about two-thirds of the benefit is in the form of a traditional life-long pension, and one-third is in an individual employee account similar to a 401(k). A critical aspect of OPSRP is that it is a funded system. If Measure 26-86 passes, we would finally start whittling down the city’s unfunded liability, eventually eliminating it. It will take a generation, but without reforms the unfunded liability is expected to grow to $8 billion over the next forty years. Look: it took 60 years to get into this mess, it’s going to take some time to get out. There is no quick and easy fix. But by supporting Measure 26-86 we can start making it better and stop allowing it to get worse.

City Club supports Measure 26-86. We worked with the city to shape the measure where we could and it doesn’t fundamentally differ from our recommendations. OPSRP requires a 12% of pay contribution, 6% from the employee and 6% from the employer. About 71% of employers in the OPSRP system “pick-up” the employee contribution. The City of Portland picks-up the 6% for all of its employees. City Club made no recommendation on the pick-up, only that it should be negotiated between the City and the unions. City Club also made no recommendation regarding Social Security. Portland police and firefighters are not in the Social Security system. This is a legacy of the federal rules about public employees and Social Security. Only the police and firefighters themselves can request to go into Social Security, and their choice cannot be stopped or forced by the city. City Club made no recommendation on Social Security for this reason. However, Social Security is a bad option for police and firefighters and the city. Social Security costs an additional 12.4% of payroll (6.2% for both employer and employee), and the way the Social Security structure, at the wage levels of police and firefighters, the benefit doesn’t match the contributions.

The structure of the retirement benefit of the Measure 26-86 is as follows. The city will place new hires into OPSRP. The city will pick-up the 6% employee contribution. And in lieu of Social Security, the city will pay an additional 3% into the employees’ retirement accounts. One the one hand, this is more generous that other city employees because only fire and police officers are getting additional contributions over the 6% pick-up. But overall, the city will be contributing less to the fire and police officers retirement because it will not have to contribute the additional 6.2% into Social Security. Assuming even low to moderate investment returns, the final retirement benefit for police and firefighters is higher by not being in Social Security and getting the extra 3% OPSRP contribution. This is a reflection of weakness of the Social Security benefit for relatively well-paid worker. Measure 26-86 includes a trigger such that if the police or firefighters ever decide to go into Social Security they would lose the additional 3% OPSRP contribution.

Measure 26-86 is not a band-aid. It stops a problem that has been growing for decades. It is a prudent and responsible way for this generation of taxpayers to remedy the ills that past generations passed to us. It is our challenge to not pass along a large and growing liability to our children and grandchildren. There is no easy fix. We’re in a hole and Measure 26-86 stops the digging.

There are more details on Measure 26-86, and we’ve only touched on the retirement portions. I am not a regular poster here, but I will come back and answer questions if they arise. You can post them here or email me directly.

John's correct inasmuch as M 26-86 does put all new hires into OPSRP. However, putting the new hires into OPSRP does not relieve the City from having to fund those benefits. Under M 26-86, at a minimum the City is on the hook for "picking up" the required OPSRP employee contributions at a rate of 9%.

Also, only new hires go into OPSRP. All existing participants in the FPD&R will continue to accrue benefits under the existing system. M 26-86 does nothing to eliminate the existing unfunded liabilities associated with current and future benefits for those individuals who do not get placed into OPSRP.

John's correct in that, eventually, every single fire and police employee will be out of FPD&R and instead in OPSRP.

However, FPD&R will be around for at least the next 50 years. For example, an officer sworn in during 2006 gets the FPD&R benefits; if that individual is 20 years old today, he/she could accrue additional benefits under the "old" system for the next 45 years (assuming retirement at age 65), and then receive benefits for the next 20 years (assuming he/she lives to be 85 years old). Because of the pay-go funding approach (i.e., 0% funding), nothing is being put away today to provide retirement benefits to this employee that will start 25+ years from now.

Even with the changes, the City remains on the hook for $1.6B in unfunded liabilities, and it's not clear to me how anything short of cutting back existing FPD&R benefits will prevent this number from growing larger (although it probably will be less than the $8B amount). If there's an actuarial report out there that shows what will happen to the $1.6B unfunded liabilities for existing participants over the next 40 years if all that is done is to move the new participants to OPSRP, I'd love to see it.

John and/or ld,

Suppose I convince a judge to declare the amendment violative of the superior prohibition on the creation of a closed class of folks, as to future pay for future work, so as to vindicate the Equal Privileges and Immunities clause of the Oregon Constitution. Which of the two alternative remedies should I demand:

One, void the amendment and thus give the new hires the same plan that all presently living members now enjoy; or,

Two, demand that all terms of pension pay for future work, for all safety workers, be governed by the terms that are set for the "new hires."

ld, you're right, there is no way to wipe away the city's liabilities. The problem before us is what are we going to do about it.

I don't have link to document that would show the trend line of the unfunded liability. But your right, it will exist--and slowly diminish--until the death of the last beneficary. To extinguish the unfunded liability faster, either we have to cut benefits for existing members or we would have to start setting aside more money. Placing new hires into OPSRP will already increase property taxes. There is a limits to how much the FPD&R can tax and there are limits to how much the city as a whole can tax. Each additional dollar that goes towards police and fire retirement is one less dollar that can go to other city services. It's a choice we have to make.

There is a good analysis by the city that shows the effect on the FPD&R levy and individual households by moving new hires into OPSRP. I don't believe it is online, but I would be happy to forward a copy to anyone that contacts me.

Ron, I am not an attorney and I don't understand your question. Are you asking if different employees can have different benefits?

Lee, I think your analogy is wrong. The city's $1.6 billion liability is not something that can be called all at once. The city's Independent Review Committee, City Club and the city's Reform Committee looked at taking out a bond to eliminate the unfunded liability, but for this to work it hinges on the city leveraging the bond and hoping the returns are greater than the interest due. There are real limits to what the city is legally able to do investment-wise, and there are great risks if the investments perform poorly. There is no free lunch.

If it's true there is no element in the measure this November to collect more property taxes than needed to fund current pensions, in order to invest the extra in other diversified revenue-generators for future use, then the Council wimped out big time with this proposal. It's been obvious since the study in 1998 that relying only on this year's property taxes to fund this year's pensions is unsustainable. Property taxes are limited by Measures 5 and 50, and we'll be in even worse trouble if the real estate market tanks. We need to put money into other investments, just as any sustainable pension fund diversifies its portfolio.

Everything I've read before Jack's post suggested the ballot measure takes care of this huge problem. It's pathetic the newspapers haven't highlighted this Elephant in the Living Room.

We use property-tax-funded investments to back bonds for everything from PDC projects to parks purchases, John - why not tackle this major liability now, that we know will continue for decades even with new hires going to the state system? Avoiding pre-funding the existing obligations doesn't help anyone - union members, the recipients of the rest of the city budget, or the taxpayers.

Oh wait, it helps the current Council members, who aren't putting the necessary tax raise on the ballot. How convenient.


Measure 26-86 will be a tax increase. But you are right, it does not fund existing retirement liabilities.

We can go into details, but I think there are three basic reasons for not funding the existing liabilities. The primary is the Measure 5 property tax limits. Funding the existing liability means there would be less money for other city programs and services. If you believe funding the liability is higher priority than other city spending, then I can understand where you’re coming from. However, Portland currently has AAA bond rating—even with the outstanding liability—so don’t think there is reason to panic.

That said, I have nothing against funding the existing liabilities per se—and Measure 26-86 doesn’t prevent funding existing liabilities—but the money has to come from somewhere. If you think this should be a priority, pick your timeline for when it should be paid off, then find $1.6 billion in current spending that your willing cut to pay for it during that period. I’m certainly open to ideas.

The second reason is generational equity. Several generations of Portlanders allowed this problem to build. I think there is a limit to how much we should expect the current generation of taxpayers to pay for their mistakes. Spreading it out over time seems reasonable to me.

Third, I think pragmatism plays a role. To get something passed there are limits to voters will pass. Perhaps they would accept more. I don’t know.

Amanda, I hope we're not talking past each other.

Just to be clear, when I say "existing liabilities" I am referring to the retirement benefits promised to current FPD&R members. Measure 26-86 would prefund all future police and firefighter retirement benefits.

As to pre-funding the existing liabilities, the Reform Committe report concluded, and I quote: "The Committee does not recommend that pre-funding the pensions of current FPD&R members of the pension system should be pursued at this time as it is too costly from the perspective of the taxpayer."

That apparently was the extent of their (published) analysis. Astonishing.

More astonishing, to me, is that San Diego is freaking out over $1.4B in unfunded liabilities -- and their plan is 67% funded. FPD&R is 0% funded and has $1.6B in unfunded liabilities, yet no one seems all that concerned.


You probably know more about San Diego, then I do, but their situation is much different than Portland's. From an old US Today article (http://www.usatoday.com/news/nation/2004-10-24-sandiego-_x.htm)

"San Diego's problems began in the early 1980s as double-digit inflation slashed retirees' buying power. Inflation also swelled pension-fund investments, so the city decided to give retirees annual bonus checks instead of setting the income aside for lean times.

"When annual contributions to the pension fund began to squeeze the budget, the city in 1996 and again in 2002 went to the pension board seeking to make smaller payments. In return, the city granted even more generous retirement benefits. Both deals apparently violated state law barring cities from funding pensions below rates that outside financial experts recommend. Neither deal was disclosed to Wall Street.

"When the stock market plunged, investment income plunged, too. The city's liability grew as a pension plan that for years had been 100% funded shrank to less than 70% funded. Wall Street gets nervous when the level slips below 90%."

San Diego took a funded system, tried to game it, and then it got out of control. Portland, on the other hand, has a dedicated floating levy for FPD&R and retirement benefits that are fixed in city charter. The systems are fundamentally different.

Still, Portlanders should be upset the liability has grown so large. And they should take action to fix the problem.

Portland currently has AAA bond rating—even with the outstanding liability—so don’t think there is reason to panic.

Er, the way I read the financials, it has that rating only because it buys private bond insurance whenever it goes to borrowed money well. Absent insurance from MBIA or AMBAC, its rating would be lower, and I would suspect about to go even lower.

The Water Bureau issued some revenue bonds and was bragging about its ratings the other day. But they definitely were not AAA.


There is a way to accommodate the pension beneficiary's desire to participate in the stock market if that is what they want.

Good comments on a problem affecting many, many jurisdictions in this country -- certainly not just Portland and San Diego.

Those of you who are better informed on the legalities of pension systems -- how in the world did we get to the point (from the federal government down to the special district) where public employee benefits that are recognized to be (1) too generous, (2) out of line with ability-to-pay, or worse (3) generally the result of collusion between public emp unions and weak legislators -- are inviolable "contract" items? This is constantly cited as a principle reason why we cannot solve this and that pension crisis in the public sector.

Does the government not renegotiate contracts in other areas (defense etc.)? Do pensioners in the private sector have any protection from severe reduction of or TOTAL LOSS of their benefits?

And what about the common trend now for "safety employees" to retire earlier (but with effectively higher pensions than say 10 years ago)? Why not ACCELERATE that trend by mandating retirement from the forces at, say -- age 40, not 50? Clean out the lucky ones, so to speak. But WITHOUT a corresponding multipler of service years x salary, etc. Even in a liberal community, is it impossible, really, to challenge public emp unions??? !!! Hard to accept that. After all, like a criminal element, they are in effect looting the public treasury.

You could blame the Commerce Clause and the limited scope of federal preemption of state laws. State's could have drafted general laws applicable to all pension trusts and trustees, without regard to whether the beneficiaries (depositors) were public and private employees. The impact of the federal preemption would then have little impact on state power other than to exclude the state's from power over private pension plans. Yet, if the states can only regulate public pension plans, it is only natural to succumb to passing laws tailored to public pensions and then step over the line from passing general laws that would be applicable to all and instead to call it a contract. As an illustration, I have remarked that if an 8 percent guarantee on returns were applied to ALL pension beneficiaries, in private and public employment, then we would have merely addressed that sort of number in a general law and it would not have been in anyway colored by a distinction between public employment or private employment. It is again why I just want to hammer on the Equal Privileges and Immunities clause to focus on general laws versus special laws that are conveniently called contracts, as if that is enough of an explanation to overcome all objections.

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