Heavy pension debts tax Marin

03/06/2014

The supervisors’ chambers were filled with a throng of public employees last month—many of them firemen, appearing like a wall of flames in red union shirts—and citizens pushing for reform to the county’s retirement benefits. 

“I am a Marin public fireman, and I am definitely not from Sausalito. I can’t afford to live there. I’m a public employee,” one attendee said. “We want to the law to continue to be used as it was designed to be used, not these draconian measures to push us out even farther than we already live.”

Tensions flared as public employees and reformers alternated at the microphone, until one reform advocate refused to sit down, threatening to “keep talking and get locked up.” A sheriff’s deputy was asked to escort him to his seat, and the board president, Kathrin Sears, suspended the meeting.

At issue was whether the supervisors should endorse San Jose Mayor Chuck Reed’s initiative that would allow cuts to future pension benefits, overturning court rulings since the 1950s that have guaranteed future benefits must be at least as generous as a public employee’s initial contract. 

The high emotions at the meeting were understandable. The topic is arguably the largest single issue facing municipalities: behind every government operation are the employees who carry out the work, and behind each of them are pension benefits built up over decades and distributed over nearly as long. 

After the 2008 crash resulted in poor market returns, critics have assailed the current system of retirement benefits as unsustainable, while government workers argue their pensions are a necessary safety net.

The Marin County Employee Retirement Association currently administers pensions benefits to 2,702 retirees, according to records provided to the Light. At the latest tally, MCERA doles out $8.88 million each month, funded by a combination of market returns on former employee investments, current employee contributions and county tax dollars. 

Much of these benefits go to the brass at the top of the retirement system: the top one percent of earners collectively receives more than the bottom 20 percent.

Local critics, who organized in 2011 as Citizens for Sustainable Pension Plans, are most worried about the county’s unfunded liabilities. If MCERA’s investments do not return the total liabilities that must be paid out, retirees do not receive smaller pensions; the county must cough up the difference. 

At the latest calculation, retiree liabilities are only 71.3 percent funded, falling short by hundreds of millions of dollars, according to the county. Marin’s unfunded liabilities are at a healthy level, county officials said, and the outlook will likely be even stronger in evaluations scheduled for release later this month after a $225 million boost from the market—a 14.7 percent return—and a one-time $32 million supplement approved by supervisors in 2013.

Last year, Fitch Ratings and Moody’s Investors Service upgraded the county’s ratings in part because “its proactive approach to reducing financial pressures posed by pensions and post-employment benefits.” 

The county has put away funds towards retiree health benefits, which are paid by most municipalities as they arise, and implemented a number of pension reforms to change calculations and contributions. An old practice of spiking salaries before retirement, for example, has been rendered less effective because earnings are now calculated over a three-year average, and new tiers now have higher retirement ages.

C.S.P.P.’s fiscal experts, however, say the county’s shortfall could be significantly higher than predicted because the accounting relies on strong market performance, an assumption that the latest downturn has undermined. In the report “Pension Roulette,” C.C.S.P. members estimate up to $2.3 billion in retiree debt based on more conservative figures for stock market performance.

These unfunded liabilities are not inherently problematic. They work like a mortgage: the county may not be able to deliver all the funds now, but it is projected to meet regular payments over time. Problems arise, as they did in Stockton, if the unfunded ratio becomes so large that the county can no longer meet its obligation to its retirees, pushing it over the edge to bankruptcy with an accompanying downturn in the financial markets, dismal investment returns or actuarial errors.

“If you listen to the county, they will tell you that they have been dealing proactively with this for years and that they are on top of it, that they are basically doing everything they can do,” said Michael Lotito, a labor attorney and founding member of C.S.P.P. “What we try to do is highlight the ongoing pension crises and how the number of people, especially at the top of the scale, continues to grow as a result of pension liabilities, both real and unfunded.”

Last year, the county devoted $45.9 million to pensions, 9.3 percent of the total budget. C.S.P.P. members argue this supplement from taxpayers will only continue to rise, crowding out other services and county jobs, until supervisors adequately fund the pension liabilities. 

“This so-called California rule holds that once the individual works for one second 30 years ago, the only thing you can do with pensions is increase them. You never can decrease them,” Mr. Lotito explained. “That means the taxpayer is constantly on the hook for all these obligations.” 

Some of Marin’s public employees dispute that their pay is a burden. “Every time there is a recession, far-right groups like Citizens for Sustainable Pension Plans argue that reducing take-home pay for librarians, fire-fighters and other public workers is the only path to fiscal sanity,” said Bergen Kenny, a representative of the county’s largest public union, MAPE. “It makes no sense to balance budgets on the backs of working people and seniors while asking nothing of the very wealthy.”

In part, Marin’s pension problem is a result of top-level managers taking in huge amounts of money, paychecks that compound with annual cost-of-living adjustments. These adjustments were once as high as 4 percent, but for most retirees they have been capped at 2 percent.

When Mark Riesenfeld was first hired by the Planning Department in October 1973, he received an annual salary of $12,708. Four decades later, after his 2005 retirement, the Point Reyes Station resident draws paychecks worth nearly double that total on a monthly basis—$20,598 each month, an annual income close to $250,000. It’s an impressive feat for a former county administrator who used to draft budgets and earned praise from supervisors for “his extraordinary abilities in fiscal management.”

Mr. Riesenfeld is one of Marin’s 190 public employees earning six-figure pensions annually, a number that has ballooned in recent years, from less than 150 employees two years ago. The top one percent of the pension system’s earners—27 retirees—are collectively paid the same amount as the bottom 613 people, or 22.7 percent of retirees.

Former Fire Chief Ken Massucco, a 37-year veteran, is the top-paid safety retiree, and the third-highest total. In 2012, he retired from the department with a base salary the year before of $190,000, yet he has received a pension that totals $200,610 annually. A few months after his retirement, he took another job as interim chief of the Novato Fire District. “I’d rather not talk about it,” Mr. Massucco said when reached at his home in Woodacre.

Other top earners include Patrick Faulkner, a former county counsel, who now earns $202,000 annually; Mehdi “Mike” Madjd-Sadjadi, director of public works,  $195,000; Dennis Finnegan, undersheriff, $189,000; and Jerry Herman, district attorney, $186,000.

“All kinds of games have been played by many, many individuals,” Mr. Lotito said. “We do think it is morally reprehensible to have individuals getting more in pensions than their final compensation. We do think it is incorrect to get a big pension and go work for another county entity with another pension and payroll. We think that’s wrong.”

The strain from the top earners can wrongly villianize the rank and file—clinical workers, technical workers, librarians—who are earning far less. The median monthly pension benefit in Marin is $2,426, an annual total of $29,113, putting it at roughly twice the average Social Security retirement benefit, which public employees cannot receive.

Scrutiny of top earners “with large paychecks and subsequent large retirements takes the focus off the majority, who will not retire with much more than the minimum wage,” Ms. Kenny said. “Radical changes really aren’t needed, and would undermine the retirement of middle-class workers who gave up wage increases for years so they could earn benefits under this plan.”

Alex Hinds, an Inverness resident and the former director of the Community Development Agency, gets a monthly paycheck of $3,587 from the county. “I worked really, really hard. I think everybody deserves a good pension,” he told the Light. Mr. Hinds has gathered retired C.D.A. directors from across the Bay Area to advise on sustainability issues for municipalities. “If adjustments need to be made going forward, that’s their game. It has to be solvent,” he added. “But I don’t think demonizing public employees because they are getting a pension is valid.” 

One Novato fireman and paramedic, who said he wanted to put “a personal face on the issue,” told of his wife and three kids who don’t know whether he will come back after work each day. “I need to know my family will be taken care of if something happens to me,” he said.

Lisa Maldonado, the executive director of the North Bay Labor Council, said, “These folks work hard. They’re entitled to their pay and to dignity in their old age. They should be able to live without fear of losing their homes and without having to rely on emergency rooms.”

Public employees argue that solutions can be reached at the bargaining table and do not need to come from a constitutional amendment. Many echoed the sentiment that they have the largest incentive to keep the pension system viable.

The Reed Initiative looks increasingly unlikely to appear on the ballot, as signature gathering has been stalled by a legal challenge over the language of the Secretary of State’s summary. Locally, C.S.P.P. members asked supervisors to endorse a resolution encouraging folks to become informed and sign petitions to bring the measure to a statewide vote. They are also exploring a local initiative, said Judy Morales, the group’s president. 

“This is not a partisan issue. This is a mathematical problem. We have to be honest in seeing that the math doesn’t work,” Mr. Lotito said. “This is a long-term battle. It’s been decades in the making, and it will be decades in the fixing. But you know, you have to begin.”