By Chris Reed.
Nine months after a League of California Cities report warned that pension costs were increasingly unsustainable, more than 100 local governments in the Golden State are asking voters for tax hikes on Nov. 6 – which Bond Buyer says is nearly double the record of 56 set in November 2016.
The Nov. 6 measures are on top of 36 city and county taxes that went before voters in the June 2018 primary.
Historically, local hikes in sales and hotel taxes are approved at least 60 percent of the time in California. They’re generally linked to a specific local need – not growing labor costs. With CalPERS’ bills to local governments on track to double from 2015 to 2025, such claims would seem dubious this election year.
Nevertheless – aware that voters likely would be cool to the idea of raising taxes to pay for pensions far more generous than those in the private sector – even now, many local elected leaders depict the hikes as necessary to pay for public safety or for fixing potholes and longer library hours.
Local officials assert hikes are about adding services
In the lead-up to the June primary, virtually the entire city leadership ranks in Chula Vista campaigned for a half-cent sales tax hike on the grounds that it was crucial to adding dozens of badly needed police officers and firefighters.
The tactic worked as Chula Vistans backed the increase. But city leaders’ claims of a coming public-safety hiring spree were impossible to square with the numbers from the city’s budget office. In April, it warned of “bleak” times ahead for San Diego County’s second-largest city, including an annual structural deficit that could reach $26.6 million by 2023 – with surging pension bills mostly to blame.
In Santa Ana, where voters are being asked to raise sales taxes by 1.5 percentage points on Nov. 6, the campaign for the tax hike rarely mentions pension costs.
But once again, a city bureaucrat framed the tax hike in more candid fashion.
“We’re not immune to the labor cost increases that are occurring throughout the state of California and throughout the country. We need to be able to provide additional services to the community. The question before the voters is what level of services do they want from their government?” Jorge Garcia, a top aide in the Santa Ana city manager’s office, told Bond Buyer.
Santa Ana’s pension bill is expected to go from $45.1 million in 2017-2018 to $81.2 million by 2022-2023 – an 80 percent increase.
‘The cause of this point-blank is CalPERS’
But some politicians have no patience with misleading narratives. “The cause of this point-blank is CalPERS and our pension fund,” Lodi Councilwoman JoAnne Mounce said in June when the Lodi City Council decided to put a half-cent sales tax on the Nov. 6 ballot.
As the League of California Cities reported in January, “With local pension costs outstripping revenue growth, many cites face difficult choices that will be compounded in the next recession. Under current law, cities have two choices – attempt to increase revenue or reduce services.”
The severity of the pension crisis is illustrated by the fact that it is sharply worsening in a period in which there is often seemingly good news on the fiscal front.
State revenue is expected to go up in 2018-19 for a 10th straight year.
County assessors report a 6.5 percent increase in property taxes this year. That’s triple the rate of inflation and comes even with Proposition 13 preventing increases of more than 2 percent on homes, businesses and other properties that didn’t change hands.
In July, CalPERS announced a second straight year of above-average earnings on its investment portfolio, which rose in value to $357 billion.
This prompted a news release from a top state union leader disputing talk of CalPERS’ poor health.
“While it’s important not to focus on one-year returns, these returns continue the long-term trend of CalPERS performing above or near its long-term discount rates and once again defying the sky-is-falling predictions of system critics,” wrote Dave Low, executive director of the California School Employees Association.
But despite the good returns, as of July, CalPERS only had 71 percent of funds needed to pay for its long-term financial liabilities, the Sacramento Bee reported. That’s far below the 80 percent funding level that is considered the absolute minimum for a healthy pension system.