When people find themselves drowning in debt, they should figure a workout plan before borrowing more money. Otherwise, they just dig a deeper hole.
Cities are no different. Unfortunately, Oakland officials don't seem to get that. They are $702 million in debt on a small city pension fund. Saying they are unable to meet the city's portion of the installment payments, they now want to refinance by issuing more bonds, pushing the day of reckoning.
It's not only kicks the can down the road, it's a risky deal that banks on strong investment returns and resumption of sustained property tax growth. We've seen this scheme before. Last time, the city lost $250 million. Now, Mayor Jean Quan, like the predecessor administration, wants to double down on the bet.
Worse, she wants to do so without a plan for how to meet the new obligation when it comes due. In talking with key members of Quan's administration, it seems that they have a better handle on the city's financial plight than past leaders. However, it's still inadequate.
Quan has been mayor for 16 months. The city's financial plight predates her administration. She knew it needed to be her top priority. Every city service issue, especially putting police officers on the street, flows from the budget. It's critical that the city realistically assess its future finances and make affordable plans.
Yet the city hobbles along with short-term budgeting and no long-term projections.
The pension shortfall stems from a plan that serves just 1,106 retired public safety employees and one remaining active worker.
The Police and Fire Retirement System, created in 1951, closed to new members in 1976 after it was found to be badly underfunded.
Since 1981, property owners have paid an exorbitant extra tax just to help reduce the shortfall. The surcharge currently costs $419 a year for an average home assessed at $266,267, or $1,575 annually for a $1 million house.
Voters were first promised the plan would be fully funded by 2016; that deadline was later extended to 2026. Meanwhile, city officials have badly mismanaged the tax money.
In 1997, they used the revenue stream as security to issue bonds. They thought they could make more by investing the bond proceeds than the cost of interest on the borrowed money. They were wrong.
So today, despite residents paying a special property tax for three decades, the pension fund is $427 million short and the city owes $275 million on the outstanding bonds. The tax revenue won't cover payments on the two debts.
Quan's solution: Issue more bonds, with repayment structured to forestall the need to pay $39 million next year from the general fund.
Assistant City Administrator Scott Johnson points out that this would allow the city to delay pension payments at least until other major debts are paid off in the 2015-16 fiscal year.
But city officials haven't produced enough analysis to intelligently evaluate the bond plan. They haven't calculated the downside risk if the gamble fails again. They haven't completed long-range budget projections to see if they will have enough money to pay off the new bonds when they come due.
And no one is talking about a binding commitment, or even a clear resolution, that the city will use the extra money starting in 2015-16 to pay down the new debt rather than divert the funds elsewhere.
City voters have been extremely patient by agreeing to extend the deadline on the pension system debt until 2026, an absurdly long 45 years after residents started paying the special property tax. When city officials last year tried to extend the deadline yet again, voters said no. But Quan didn't hear the message.
She now proposes backloading the debt, setting up a financial crisis a decade from now as the deadline approaches. If that happens, expect officials to then go back to voters for the extension.
It's a continuation of the city's fiscal recklessness that got us to where we are today. Quan must do better.