Pensions, retiree health costs and municipal debt

Bloomberg Link recently hosted a panel on the costs of healthcare for public retirees, pensions and public debt. Panel members included Richard Ravitch, who helped manage the New York City fiscal crisis in the 1970s when the bond market stopped lending to the city, and Ed Rendell, former governor of Pennsylvania. These men are two of muniland’s strongest war horses who have fought big governance battles. Bloomberg provided background for the discussion:

These so-called OPEB promises made by the 15 biggest cities alone total $115 billion, with an average burden of $2,300 for every man, woman and child, according to data compiled by Bloomberg. How will local governments manage to make good on their pledges without becoming insolvent? Will we see governments reduce benefits and raise their cost for current workers, as has been the case in several cities and states?

You can see the best of the panel in this replay from C-Span in minutes 15:40 through 26:60. It is truly the best discussion of this issue I have ever seen. OPEBs (other post-employment benefits) are liabilities of states and cities that must be paid in addition to unfunded pensions and municipal debt. Ravitch had some biting advice for Wall Street on pushing municipal debt that confiscates future revenues:

Will Scranton recover?

Scranton, Pennsylvania blasted into the national consciousness last summer when its mayor, facing a cash shortage, slashed city worker wages to minimum wage.

In August the city was saved from immediate ruin by the union-owned Amalgamated Bank:

Amalgamated Bank recently provided $6.25 million of short-term financing to the City of Scranton, Pennsylvania. Nearly two months ago, the salaries of 400 municipal employees were reduced to the minimum wage level. Now with Amalgamated’s loan, the City can make its full weekly payrolls and pay its vendors while completing and putting in place a three-year fiscal recovery plan.

Another model for privatization implodes

Concerned Residents Confront Carlyle Over Sludge Dumping*

I’ve written numerous times about how public private partnerships (PPP) are often a bad deal because they privatize profits and socialize risks. A perfect example of this is the bankruptcy of privately-held Synagro Technologies, which contracted with municipal governments to treat raw sewage and then spread it on farm fields. Reuters reports:

Carlyle Group LP’s (CG.O) Synagro Technologies Inc filed for Chapter 11 bankruptcy protection on Wednesday with a plan to sell the business to a Swedish private equity firm for $455 million.

Synagro, the largest recycler of organic waste in the United States, has agreed to a sale to an investment fund associated with EQT.

Puerto Rico’s new budget

Puerto Rico’s governor Alejandro Garcia Padilla presented his new budget for the Commonwealth on Thursday. Caribbean Business reported on the details:

Puerto Rico Gov. Alejandro García Padilla unveiled a $9.83 billion operating budget Thursday night during a state of the commonwealth address in which he pledged to reduce crime, create jobs, boost school attendance and expand the U.S. territory’s tourism sector.

The proposed spending package is $783 million more than the current budget, which will be covered by new revenue and $200 million in deficit financing, he said.

The ruins of old America

A stronghold of America’s establishment may be about to be toppled. The world’s largest Masonic Temple in Detroit will be foreclosed for unpaid taxes. The bones of twentieth-century America are withering away. Detroit’s WXYZ reports:

It’s a nationally registered historic landmark built in the 1920s.

It’s a symbol of art, culture and grandeur.

And according to county tax documents; it’s in foreclosure.

Wayne County says the owners of the Masonic Temple have forfeited their right to the Detroit building because of more than $150,000 in back taxes.

The Masons once represented one of the strongest fraternal organizations in America. Their “lodges” or “temples” are found across the states as relics of a once strong national organization. In many ways, the decline and abandonment of these edifices is a mirror-image of the decline of American manufacturing. Detroit, once the wealthiest city in America, had both the largest and grandest Masonic Temple and manufacturing base. Now both have crumbled to ruins.

Port Authority of New York and New Jersey outsources new Goethals bridge

The Port Authority of New York and New Jersey announced on Wednesday that it has awarded the contract to rebuild the Goethals Bridge to a public private partnership (PPP). Bloomberg reports:

A group led by Kiewit Corp. and a Macquarie Group Ltd. (MQG) unit won a Port Authority of New York and New Jersey contract to finance, design and build a $1.5 billion replacement for the 85-year-old Goethals Bridge…

…“As we move forward with continuing constraints on our resources, we’re financing necessary infrastructure and at the same time minimizing the use of public funds and public debt capacity,” Port Authority Executive Director Pat Foye said yesterday at a board meeting in Manhattan.

Gallagher’s muniland armageddon

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Several professionals in muniland have jumped on SEC Commissioner Dan Gallagher for his recent warnings about the possibility of an “Armageddon” for retail investors in muniland.

Anonymous blogger @munilass berates Gallagher for his statements about retail investors:

In the interview, Gallagher said his concerns mostly relate to retail investors, who hold approximately three-quarters of outstanding municipal bonds. He then called the muni market a bubble (a term that becomes less useful every time someone utters it) and said “there are a lot of investors in the municipal bond market that aren’t supposed to be there.”  I take the latter to be a reference to credit risk, not interest rate risk, but Gallagher did not elaborate, so I am not sure what he meant by that.

Philadelphia should address its basic issues

Philadelphia held its bond investor conference last week. Although the press was not allowed to attend, the city did post the presentations on its website. Philadelphia Inquirer reporter Joe DiStefano neatly summarized the city’s political and fiscal position, which is not as rosy as the presentations make it seem:

Philadelphia hopes to borrow more than $1 billion by selling or refinancing bonds over the next nine months. For all the city’s growth around Center City, the colleges and the Navy Yard, officials face some big challenges: the lowest credit ratings of the biggest U.S. cities (low credit ratings tend to boost borrowing costs, though current interest rates are near rock-bottom levels); the financial near-collapse at the School District; the scheduled end of the sales-tax surcharge; labor negotiations and court decisions that have mostly upheld city labor union positions and reversed Nutter administration cost-cutting schemes; a thwarted real estate tax reform; stagnant office growth; high poverty in worn city neighborhoods; and more.

Philadelphia’s most important fiscal problem is its relationship with the city’s unionized employees. The city summed up the problem in the investor presentation (page 19). Note that the city has had no new agreements with three of four municipal unions since 2009, and that most employees have the right to strike.

Is it time to restructure CalPERS?

A canary is singing in a coal mine in California. Canyon Lake, a city of about 11,000, has announced its intention to terminate its contract with CalPERS, the statewide retirement system. The small city has outsourced most of its public services and has two employees on its payroll, which it will shift from full time to part-time employment. According to Reuters:

Canyon Lake said it has looked at Calpers’s website, which states that its unfunded liability to the fund is $661,000.

Richard Rowe, Canyon Lake’s interim city manager, said the city decided it would be cheaper to borrow money to pay off Calpers rather than continue to pay the fund.

Public unions: How strong is their influence?

Recently I participated in a podcast for the non-profit Freedom Works. One of the topics was how much influence public unions have on federal, state and local politicians. I said that I had not seen academic studies, but my own belief is that their over-sized political influence has allowed them to increase wages, benefits and advantages for public workers. It doesn’t look all that different from how corporations and Wall Street buy political influence through elections and legislation.

This is from a University of Pennsylvania study that maps union support to favorable fiscal decisions:

Our empirical analysis focuses on municipal elections in the 150 largest cities in the U.S. between 1990 and 2012. We find that challengers strongly benefit from [union] endorsements in competitive elections. Challengers that receive union endorsements and successfully defeat an incumbent also tend to adopt more union friendly fiscal policies.

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