In my previous post, I described the “California rule,” which puts state governments in a legal straitjacket when trying to reform underfunded public pensions. Specifically, it places pensions in a privileged position relative to other types of compensation, like salary or health insurance benefits, by making them more difficult to change. This post highlights a real-world example of the California rule’s dangers.
The place is Pacific Grove, California, a town of 15,000 residents on the Monterey Peninsula’s northern tip, with an annual budget of $11 to $12 million. In 2008, John Moore, a Pacific Grove resident and retired attorney, learned that the City of Pacific Grove had issued $19 million of pension bonds two years earlier, while at the same time it gave the police union a 30% raise.
After making several requests under California’s Public Records Act, Moore uncovered a tale of self-dealing by Pacific Grove and union officials to rip off California taxpayers. The result of Moore’s investigation, “The Fall of Pacific Grove,” was published in The Pine Cone, a Monterey County paper; it’s now available online thanks to the California Public Policy Center.
In 2002, the Pacific Grove city council adopted a 50 percent pension increase for public safety workers, after being told by the city manager that the increased benefit would cost around $51,500 per year. However, the city manager withheld from the council an actuary report that estimated the benefit at over $800, 000 per year. The hidden actuary report was not discovered until 2009. The results have been predictable and dire. Pacific Grove’s pension deficit has ballooned to $45 million, plus $20 million in pension bonds, and is growing at 7.5 percent a year, according to Moore.