Last year, crippling pension and benefits costs caused the city of Vallejo, California to declare bankruptcy. In this year of compounded economic crisis, more towns and cities may follow Vallejo's lead, pushed over the edge by an accounting and financial-reporting provision known as GASB (pronounced "gaz-bee") 45. "It's a perfect storm of pension liabilities hitting us at a time when the economy is tanking and revenues are tanking," says David Edwards, the senior policy advisor to Atlanta's mayor. "It's unprecedented."
Localities that have already complied with GASB 45 have had to disclose the compromising long-term costs of lifetime health care and other retiree benefits. In New York City, which began compliance in 2007, the accounting measure has placed a new $63 billion liability on the books. Atlanta's pension- and benefit-related expenses exploded from $44.5 million in 2005 to $118 million today, even while the city cut its personnel headcount by 8.6 percent. In Vallejo's case, the city's declaration of bankruptcy last May was due to the fact that it was spending 74 percent of its $80 million general-fund budget on public-sector salaries and benefits. Police captains were entitled to receive $306,000 annually in pay and benefits, while 21 firefighters earned more than $200,000 a year, including overtime. After five years on the job, all were entitled to lifetime health benefits.
The culprit, of course, isn't GASB 45 itself but the ugly reality that it exposes. There are 22.5 million public-sector employees in the United States. The average state and local government employee now makes 46 percent more in combined salary and benefits than his private-sector counterpart does, according to the Employee Benefit Research Institute-including 128 percent more on health care and 162 percent more on retirement benefits. Four out of five public-sector workers have lifetime pensions. Paying for such lavish treatment is difficult; in 2007, Credit Suisse estimated that state and local governments owed more than $1.5 trillion in unfunded health-care and non-pension benefits. Further, the market meltdown has erased $1 trillion from municipal pension funds, according to Boston College's Center for Retirement Research.
New York City now spends an average of $107,000 for each of its 281,000 current employees-a whopping 63 percent increase since 2000. At the same time, its direct pension expenses each year have increased from $615 million to $5.6 billion. And New York isn't alone. Forty states estimate that their liabilities for public-sector health-care and other benefits exceed $400 billion-more than their entire public debt, according to Standard and Poor's. New Jersey has dug a particularly deep hole for itself. Its state pension fund lost half its value in 2008 but pays out $5.2 billion each year in benefits. "The state of New Jersey is insolvent," writes bond analyst Mike Shedlock. "Bankrupt might be a better word."
Posted by John Ray. For a daily critique of Leftist activities, see DISSECTING LEFTISM. For a daily survey of Australian politics, see AUSTRALIAN POLITICS Also, don't forget your daily roundup of pro-environment but anti-Greenie news and commentary at GREENIE WATCH . Email me (John Ray) here