Brea First: Unfunded Pension Liability

unfunded liabilityUnfunded pension liability was the topic at last night’s Brea First meeting. A very detailed description and analysis was presented by Pete Constant and Truong Bui from the Reason Foundation. When I say detailed, I’m mean deep into the numbers, tiered water rates, where did you get your PhD. sort of detailed.

To their credit, and thanks to a stream of astute and probing questions from the audience, the details provided a backdrop upon which some very down-to-earth discussion emerged. While understanding how we ended up in this hole isn’t without value, finding a way out is the real issue.

A brief history lesson.

In 1999 Council adopted an enhancement of the city’s defined benefit retirement program providing Public Safety personnel with a guaranteed 90% retirement at 30 years of service (Simonoff, Perry, Moore, Daucher yes; Vargas no). This greatly exacerbated Brea’s unfunded liability. Had Brea chosen a defined contribution plan instead we wouldn’t be having this conversation.

In 2000 Brea was overfunded to the tune of $15 million. I’ll let that sink in for a minute. We were ahead of the game by $15 million bucks! Expressed in 2016 dollars, that would be $17+ million – almost three times what we just deposited into our PARS account (Public Agency Retirement Services).

It was downhill from there.

pension liabilityIn 2001 and 2009, coinciding with the two recessions, funding rate for retirement had dropped from an enviable 133% in 2000 to 60% in 2009. Today’s unfunded pension liability, conservatively, is $85 million dollars and market value assets are only 74.9% of what is required.

The $85 million relies upon an overly generous assumed Rate of Return that CalPERS projects to be 7.5%. The average Rate of Return earned by CalPERS investments over the last 15 years is 5.2%. I’m not sure who they’re trying to fool, participants or themselves or both?

Staff has suggested to Council that maintaining an 80% funded level is sufficient. It is not.

That assumption puts all Brea services in jeopardy, including public safety. Further, the $6 million transferred from year end surplus into the PARS account is barely a drop in the bucket. The road to hell is paved with good intentions.

If you’ve ever tried to pay off a credit card relying on making minimum payments, you know exactly how ludicrous this is.

Where the state comes in.

The decades old dinosaur that is CalPERS operates using a very complex set of calculations to determine Rate of Return and Discount Rate. I’ll save you the rocket science, you can find the full reports here if you’re so inclined.

Suffice it to say that CalPERS is systemically malfunctioning and in dire need of a major overhaul. This is the other half of the problem/solution formula. Literally thousands of agencies state wide share in this multi-billion dollar unfunded liability. Public employee pensions are constitutionally guaranteed.

So, no matter what Brea decides to do to fulfill our local responsibility, funding our pension plan, we also have to bring pressure to bear on Sacramento to adopt the constitutional amendments that govern how public pensions are managed.

Joining forces.

I suppose it isn’t out of the question to think cities might band together to lobby Sacramento. Brea keeps a high priced lobbying firm on retainer, other cities must do the same. There is strength in numbers.

League of California CitiesOh, and as longstanding members of the League of California Cities I would think we could turn to them for assistance too. After all, that’s what they do… right, they advocate on behalf of member cities.

But wait, their employees pension plan is CalPERS. Is it possible there is a conflict of interest here?

Where does Brea start?

pension liabilityWe’re in a hole. A deep hole. We need to stop digging and find a way out.

Finding that way out must start with the Council. They need to create a plan to raise our pension funding level from 74.9% to 100%. Not over some protracted length of time. Now. Anything less than 100% adds to our unfunded liability.

Council must commit to a vigorous debt reduction plan, eliminating our unfunded liability.

It’s not as simple as tacking on another half a percent or so sales tax targeted only to pay off the debt. That’s illegal. And we’re not likely to stumble across some windfall and miraculously escape. It will take sacrifice.

City services will be seriously impacted. Public health and safety services will be effected as well. If you thought coping with the drought has been tough, you ain’t seen nothin’ yet.

pension liabilityOkay Council, the ball is in your court. It looks like Brea First is committed to holding you accountable… so am I.

Download PDFs of the Reason Foundation Brea Unfunded Pension Liability Presentation and Report by clicking on the blue links.

It’s Not About Water Rights.

Recent OCR articles by both Chris Haire and Terri Daxon have addressed Brea’s recent acquisition of Cal Domestic water rights. The question regarding who has the authority to spend Brea’s money and what the real issue is in acquiring water rights seems to have gotten overlooked in the swarm of facts and figures.

The acquisition of water rights and preferred stock, from Cal Domestic and the Metropolitan Water District, has long appeared to be complicated, if for no other reason than to dissuade the public from taking a closer look at the process. While both writers got the essentials correct, here’s an executive summary.

Water rights – distilled.

December 2011 – Council approves an $8.1 million purchase of rights for 665 acre feet of water. Pay once, get the water every year in perpetuity. Cost for water is locked in, cost to deliver can and does rise annually.

This purchase is made by transferring $5.6 million from Brea’s General and Risk Management Funds to the Water Fund. This is called a “loan” – at an interest rate of 2.17% for seven years. So far we’ve paid back about $1 million. I don’t know why it’s called a loan. The balance, $2.5 million, was already available in the Water Fund.

bill_gallardoJune 2013 – Jim Byerumm, Cal Domestic’s General Manager alerts Charlie View and Bill Gallardo of the availability of rights for an additional 225 acre feet.

Internal discussions ensue, excluding Council. Brea’s bid of $3.4 million, made without Council authorization, by Charlie View and Bill Gallardo is accepted by Cal Domestic.

Believing that there were still Water Funds available from the original transfer (loan) and approval given in 2011, View and Gallardo completed the transaction without giving Council so much as a courtesy heads-up.

After their oversight was discovered, the Cal Domestic invoice was ultimately paid using a $1.2 million credit from Cal Domestic’s terminated Capital Improvement Fund (accrued because we’d overpaid for almost 18 months) and $2.2 million from the Water Fund.

The error on the parts of View and Gallardo, in memory and judgement, involves $3.4 million, not $2.2 million as reported. Also, the fact that we paid Cal Domestic’s Capital Improvement Fund $70 thousand a month for a year and a half after they terminated the fund deserves some discussion, too. How many errors like this are going on? Why aren’t audits catching this sort of blunder?

The whole affair was discovered by Council member Simonoff, who set in motion the process that brought the matter into Council study session. Apparently Garcia and Murdock believe that being in the room is sufficient to allow them partial credit.

I disagree, but that’s another blog.

Now having retroactively covered their assets and having called in independent auditors to review both purchases to ensure there are no further problems, plus doubling the staff required to closely oversee transactions of this sort in the future, Gallardo suggests that Brea is pretty much out of the woods.

I wouldn’t be too sure about that.

No data trail, the real problem.

According to Bill Gallardo, none of this process is documented in any fashion prior to Cal Domestic submitting their invoice!

Not the notification of availability. Not the confirmation of interest. Not the details of negotiation, i.e. bids, counter bids, stipulations and contracts. Nothing. Not who was involved. Not how business was transacted. Nothing.

No other purchase or financial commitment made by the city, to the best of my knowledge, is conducted in such an unacceptable, loosey goosey manner. You know why? Because we’re in charge! We make the rules.

CA_SealWhen it comes to water rights apparently there are no rules. We can’t even demand a paper trail from Cal Domestic because we have no authority over them. Only the State of California does.

Instead of sending a representative to Washington to wade in on immigration issues, instead of sending an entourage half way around the world to watch a folkloric event and do a lot of sightseeing, maybe we should send someone to Sacramento to rattle Governor Brown’s cage on this.

falls_640tim_2aIf Brea is really a corporation, how about asking our “CEO” to start acting like he’s running a corporation.

After all, every glitch in this whole water rights matter circles right back to his office.

Where was he in this process? On vacation… again?