Gullixson: What is being squeezed out to pay increasing pension costs?

Here’s an important question to pose to Sonoma County’s new pension advisory committee. For that matter, it should go to all local elected officials. How much are rising pension costs crowding out other spending — money for public assistance, park maintenance and “soft services” such as libraries and museums?

If the county, cities and school districts are honest, local residents probably won’t like the answer. And given the increased contributions that local agencies are having to pay to the California Public Employees’ Retirement System and the California State Teachers’ Retirement System, the “crowding-out effect” of pensions is expected to get far worse.

“In counties, what we are seeing is a decrease in spending share in particular in public assistance and health care,” said Stanford professor Joe Nation, who represented Marin and southern Sonoma counties in the state Assembly until being termed out in 2006. “The irony here is as pension costs increase, the people who are arguably being hurt the most are the people who can least afford it. It’s people who need the public assistance from counties.”

Nation, now project director at the Stanford Institute for Economic Policy Research, hosted a workshop on Tuesday where he presented the preliminary findings of a study of this crowding-out effect. His research team looked at the finances of cities such as Los Angeles, Sacramento and Pacific Grove as well as counties and school districts — small, medium and large — and the state as a whole. These case studies offer a snapshot of what’s happening statewide.

Los Angeles County, for example, was contributing 3 percent of its operating budget toward pensions in 2002 before public employee retirement benefits were boosted retroactively almost statewide. Since then, that slice of the pie has nearly tripled to about 8.7 percent. According to the Stanford analysis, it is expected to grow to 10.2 percent by 2029-30, if the county meets its goals of about 7 percent average annual return on investments. If not, and returns come in at more around 5 percent, the share of the budget taken up by pensions will be 13.8 percent — an 11 percent increase in just 17 years.

In Pacific Grove, “it’s an even more dramatic story,” Nation said. Pension contributions have gone from 2 percent of the operating budget in 2002 to 22.5 percent today and are projected to grow to 23 percent to 28 percent by 2029.

Meanwhile, the Mill Valley School District is expected to see pension costs double from roughly $4 million to $8 million by 2029.

That’s similar to what Santa Rosa City Schools has been experiencing. By 2020-21, the district’s payments to the California Public Employees Retirement System, which covers many nonteaching positions, and the California State Teachers Retirement System will eat up roughly 20 percent of payroll dollars — about double the level it was in 2014-15. This explains why the Santa Rosa district was forced to cut more than $4.5 million from this year’s budget, funding equal to about 13 full-time teaching jobs.

So as these retirement costs increase, where is the money coming from?

“For the state of California, what is getting squeezed … are social services and higher education,” Nation said. “As the state has had to increase the amount of money put in for state employees, the share of the budget for social services has declined considerably.”

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