Thursday, July 06, 2017


Municipalities that try cutting the retirement plans face pushback both from the officers, some of whom quit, and from a generally pro-police public

By Heather Gillers and Zusha Elinson

The Wall Street Journal
July 4, 2017

When the city of San Jose had trouble affording services such as road repair and libraries because of the cost of police pensions, it obtained voter approval to pare them. What happened next proved sobering for other cities in the same pickle. Hundreds of police officers quit. Response times for serious calls rose.

Faced with labor-union litigation, San Jose this year restored previous retirement ages and cost-of-living increases for existing police officers, and last month it gave them a raise.

Police pensions are among the worst-funded in the nation. Retirement systems for police and firefighters have just a median 71 cents for every dollar needed to cover future liabilities, according to a Wall Street Journal analysis of data provided by Merritt Research Services for cities of 30,000 or more.

The combined shortfall in the plans, which are the responsibility of municipal governments, is more than $80 billion, nearly equal to New York City’s annual budget.

Broader municipal pension plans have a median 78 cents of every dollar needed to cover future liabilities, according to data from Merritt. The 100 largest U.S. corporate pension plans have 85% of assets needed on hand, according to Milliman Inc. data as of March 31.

And yet any attempt to bring police pensions into line with today’s municipal budgets and stock-market performance runs into the reality that many officers won’t stand for it—and they often have the public behind them.

“They have extra clout because people love police,” said Dallas Mayor Mike Rawlings. “I love police. You love police. An electrician—you don’t have that emotional tie.”

His city, like San Jose, found itself facing widespread police-officer resignations when it moved to cut their pensions. In Dallas, the situation became so difficult the state legislature stepped in this spring to work out a solution.

Police pensions were the first nonmilitary retirement systems to be created in the U.S., in second half of the 19th century. In later years, when municipal budgets were tight, augmenting pension promises in lieu of raises became a way governments could make peace with politically powerful police unions without incurring immediate new spending.

In the 1980s and 1990s, robust investment returns made governments’ pension promises look affordable. By 2001, major police and firefighter plans followed by the Public Plans Database, which tracks 150 major state and local pension plans, had a median 101% of what they needed to pay for future obligations.

The 2008 financial crisis wiped out pension-plan earnings at the same time that it put stress on municipal budgets, leading some cities to contribute less to the plans each year than what actuaries calculated was needed.

Also, many cities continued to assume robust 1990s-era investment returns when they calculated annual pension contributions, Their pension debt grew as those returns failed to materialize and cities didn’t adjust their contributions to the plans.

Memphis, Tenn., gambled it could cut police pensions without any impact on public safety. The city council voted in 2014 to end pensions for municipal workers, including the police, with 7.5 years of service or less, and replace the pensions with a hybrid plan combining pension and 401(k)-style benefits.

In the following two years, about 100 officers affected by the changes left the force, out of a total of about 2,000. Homicides rose to a record 228 last year from 167 in 2014. Billboards erected by the police union around town read, “Welcome to Memphis: 228 homicides in 2016, down over 500 police officers.” Memphis currently has 1,928 officers, down from 2,416 in 2012.

The city’s mayor, Jim Strickland, has since pledged to increase police staffing. A spokeswoman for the city said enrollment in the police academy is increasing despite the reduced benefits package. Even so, city officials recently announced a $6.1 million grant for retention bonuses. Meanwhile, the police union is trying to get certain benefits restored in court.

One of the first cities that tried to bring police pension costs down was San Jose, where former Mayor Chuck Reed asked voters to approve pension cuts as part of a 2012 ballot measure.

Among the hundreds of police officers who quit after voters said yes to the change was Tim Watermulder, who left to join the Oakland police department in 2013. It had been announced that the police-academy class in which he graduated would be the first to operate under a new system providing lower cost-of-living increases and a retirement age of 60 instead of 50.

“You start to see what police work is really like every day,” said Mr. Watermulder, 35 years old, who fought in Iraq with the U.S. military before becoming a police officer. “I really started thinking about ‘Can I do this job till I’m 60?’”

About 180 of 1,109 sworn officer positions in San Jose are currently vacant. San Jose has the lowest number of officers per capita among the nation’s 35 largest cities, according to a Journal analysis of Federal Bureau of Investigation data from 2015, the most recent available.

Response times for the most serious calls rose to an average of 7.3 minutes last year from 6.1 minutes in fiscal 2011, according to the police department.

Policing San Jose

After California’s third-largest city curbed pension benefits for its police, numerous officers quit and police response times rose.

San Jose is still safe compared with many other cities, but its violent-crime rate jumped last year to the highest since 2008. “A lot of it had to do with us not having enough officers,” said San Jose Police Chief Eddie Garcia. His advice to other cities seeking to shore up their finances by cutting police benefits: “Don’t make a crisis into a bigger crisis.”

Crime has risen in many cities in recent years, not just in those that have lost officers. Per capita homicide rates are up in 27 of the country’s 35 largest cities since 2014, according to homicide data. The causes of such increases are hard to pinpoint, but there is little doubt “losing hundreds of officers would make a big difference in the ability to control crime,” said Richard Rosenfeld, a criminologist at the University of Missouri-St. Louis.

San Jose, to retain and recruit officers, has gone beyond rolling back changes it had tried to make in retirement ages and cost-of-living increases for existing police officers. Police got a 10% raise last month, to be followed by 3% raises in 2018 and 2019.

Since those measures were put in place, police-academy enrollment has risen sharply. “It looks like were now on the right track,” a city spokesman said.

Dallas has had an unusual struggle with the police-pension issue. The funding level of its plan for police and firefighters earlier this year fell to just 36%, among the lowest in the nation.

A trouble spot has been a plan created 25 years ago in an effort to keep experienced officers from leaving for police jobs elsewhere after they qualified for police pensions around age 50.

Officials figured they couldn’t afford sufficient wage increases to keep those officers, so instead they would sweeten pension benefits, said Steve Bartlett, who was mayor when the special fund was created.

That deal allowed officers who worked into their 50s to earn a pension and a salary at the same time. Terms provided for a guaranteed 8% to 10% return on the assets contributed to the plan, forcing the pension fund to make up the difference when market returns came in below that threshold. Officers who stuck around long enough could potentially accumulate $1 million in the special fund.

“They said, ‘Hey, the retirement is top notch. You may not be paid well initially, but in the end you’ll be a millionaire,’ ” said Brad Uptmore, a Dallas police officer for 10 years.

The promised return became harder to deliver after the financial crisis, as real-estate investments the fund made from Hawaii to Paris went sour and triggered more than $500 million in losses.

Spooked by the losses and talk of benefit cuts, hundreds of police and firefighters quit, withdrawing $500 million from the roughly $3 billion fund and pushing it closer to insolvency.

The city sought help from the Texas legislature. In late May the state government approved a package that requires the city to contribute an additional $25 million to $40 million a year to the pension plan while also cutting benefits.

Under the legislation, a police officer who is now 40 and retires in 2035 can get a pension that year of $95,339, compared with $109,583 under the old pension structure, according to a hypothetical calculated by the pension fund.

The changes may not be enough. The plan will still have less than half what it needs to cover its liabilities, according to an estimate provided by the fund to legislators. A review by S&P Global Ratings concluded that “more reforms will be needed.” Mayor Rawlings agreed the city has “much work ahead.”

Many longtime Dallas police officers won’t be around to see how the changes pan out, including Mr. Uptmore. He left to join the much smaller police department of Southlake, Texas, in the spring of last year—one of 336 Dallas officers who left in 2016.
“Once you realize there’s no gold at the end of the rainbow, I think you stop pursuing that,” Mr. Uptmore said.

1 comment:

bob walsh said...

Stockton got around it when they bank bankrupt by ashcanning a large chunk of their pension costs. That is rough, but effective. They just got rid of employer paid health care for their retirees. Welched on the deal.