The Grand Jury of San Diego issued a report of this title yesterday.  Also, at yesterday’s GFOA (Government Finance Officers Association) business meeting, the group voted  that the Government Accounting Standards Board should stay away from the topic of sustainability.  The only conclusion one can draw from the Grand Jury report is: the city of San Diego’s current trajectory is UNSUSTAINABLE.  Here, are a few choice passages (please read as if these too, were fully capitalized):

The City has yet to articulate structural solution to close the multi-million dollar budget deficit in fiscal year 2010.  More than 50% of this gap in financing was filled by using one-time solutions, such as skipping reserve payments and deferring projects.

In summary, this investigation is presented to the City and its citizens because the status quo is not going to resolve the crisis of financial instability, unbalanced budgets and reduction of the city’s obligations, liabilities and debts.

One of the underlying causes of the current structural budget imbalance is the underfunding of the City’s pension obligation by previous City administrations.

Ok, we know this.  This is true among states and municipalities across the country.  But what to do?  In some (not all) places the pitch of the problem has reached a scream – CONTINUING GOVERNMENT OPERATIONS ARE UNSUSTAINABLE.  Amazingly, the choice to cut critical services has become the lesser of two evils – the other being pension and benefit reform.  Elected officials, charged with managing cities like San Diego would rather have fewer cops, less trash pick-up, deteriorating infrastructure and higher taxes, than deal with runaway benefit spending.  Even if you believe that the benefits are deserved, earned and righteous, the city simply does not have the resources to pay these costs and also maintain a livable city.  So what’s the decision?  Give up the livable city?  The City’s Independent Budget Analyst stated:

Structural deficits require structural solutions.

The report suggests using the federal bankruptcy courts to determine what can and cannot be restructured.  Investors, along with public employee unions (strange bedfellows) hate this solution and prefer to stay in one-shot-land, or stand by while the deterioration mounts (see stories on Vallejo’s increasing crime.)  The courts could also decide to trim back debt obligations in the same restructuring process.  This has happened in Vallejo, where there is a moratorium on debt service payments (at least with the current intent of re-paying in full at the end of the moratorium period).  Vallejo’s bankruptcy tackled the city’s ability to reject union contracts, a key step, but they did not touch the pension issue.  The San Diego Grand Jury suggests a bankruptcy court could help sort out this benefits conundrum.

Finding 26: A proactive dialogue as to the efficacy of a Chapter 9 reorganization cannot be removed from any discourse as to the City’s financial health

Finding 27:  A Chapter 9 filing would result in a federal determination of which fringe benefits and collective bargaining agreements could be restructured.  The fringe benefit total is $423.7 million, according to the FY 2011 Proposed Budget.

RECOMMENDATION

The 2009/2010 San Diego County Grand Jury recommends that the Mayor of the City of San Diego and the San Diego City Council:Convene a panel of bankruptcy experts to discuss the legal and financial ramifications of a Chapter 9 declaration of bankruptcy, in the context of a publicly noticed City Council or Council Committee meeting. 

In this context, the municipal credit analyst, the investor and the taxpayer, need a new tack on fiscal review.  Unfunded pension liabilities must be included as a long term debt in debt ratios.  The rating agencies discuss these burdens but they are not included in the numbers. Medians that include all long term and contractually obligated costs should be developed to correctly compare cities and identify outliers like San Diego Vallejo.  The long term cost of these obligations should clearly be disclosed so that ratios may be calculated.  For example, red flags of fiscal trouble are waving fervently in San Diego’s case and the Grand Jury mentions Vallejo as well:

In 1994, the city’s budget for pension expense was 6% of payroll cost.  Today, sixteen years later, the cost is 28% of payroll, and growing.

For FY2009, the City’s fringe benefits rate was 52.5% of budgeted salaries of $728 million (IBA Report #09-10 issued February 24, 2009, p.2).  On average, privately operated companies spend 35% of budgeted salaries on fringe benefits. 

Some 76% of Vallejo’s operating budget went to salaries and benefits.  The norm is 50%.  Pensions were not an immediate issue since Vallejo had funded its pension obligation.  Vallejo’s most significant liability was $135 million of unfunded health care.  Vallejo officials brought the unions back to the bargaining table after the federal bankruptcy judge ruled collective bargaining agreements can be voided. 

A few other red flags that can be identified with a bit of extra work:

Is the municipality/state postponing annually required benefit contributions?  Is the government making its “annually required contribution” or ARC?  If not, this will catch up quickly as evidenced in San Diego (see separate post on the state of Illinois)

Are judgments and claims high and increasing?  This points to the government’s poor risk management practices and sloppiness.  This is a low-hanging fruit that cities should tackle with gusto.  The Grand Jury found in San Diego’s case:

Funding of the City’s (self-insured) public liability fund against lawsuits that could drain the General Fund for years to come.  As of June 30, 2009, the City faces $129 million in claims.

Funding the city (self-insured) worker’s compensation fund against outstanding claims, currently estimated at $161 million.

As the press and blogosphere keep telling us, there will be more municipal defaults and bankruptcies.  But there is a difference between painting all securities with the same brush and rigorous analysis.  We believe the flags are identifiable. 

We are coming out of a period when investors bought municipal bonds with their eyes closed.  The mantra that municipals don’t default and the once widespread presence of bond insurance convinced the investing community that analysis was irrelevant.  No more.  On the other hand, Congress has pressured newly contrite rating agencies to upgrade municipals at perhaps the worst time in history. 

San Diego’s GO ratings?  Moody’s: Aa3; Fitch: AA- and Standard and Poor’s: A 

There is a table at the end of the Grand Jury report with a September 6, 2010 deadline for city officials to respond to the specific recommendations.  The Mayor, the City Council, the Retirement System’s administration, the Audit Committee and Independent Auditor are required under the state of California Penal Code to do so. Looks like a busy summer.

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