By Steven Malanga –
In 2005 the city of San Bernardino borrowed $50 million using pension bonds in an effort to shrink its massive debt with the California Public Employees’ Retirement Systems (CalPERS). Two years later Stockton floated nearly $125 million in pension bonds because it faced the same pressures as San Bernardino. Neither city reformed or reduced its pension benefits at the time in order to stop the continuing rapid growth of retirement liabilities. In fact, San Bernardino subsequently enhanced pensions.
Both cities are bankrupt today and their initial bankruptcy plans include suspending payments to bondholders, including to those who bought its pension obligation bonds. At the same time the cities are doing little to rein in pension costs. Stockton forecasts that its pension payments to CalPERS will nearly double by the end of the decade. In large part that’s because CalPERS has threatened to tie up in court any California municipality that attempts to reduce its pension benefits to current workers.
Welcome to Chapter 9 in the 21st century. Ever since a fiscal tsunami began engulfing state and local budgets in 2009, bondholders and public employees have been on a collision course. That’s because municipal budgets are largely made of employee costs. Some 70 to 80 percent of city, town and school district budgets consist of pay and benefits, and even as tax revenues have slumped, the cost of employing the average local government worker has soared thanks to skyrocketing benefit costs.