The heaviest loads in Orange County are in older cities, such as Newport Beach, that have had their own in-house police and fire departments for decades. Public safety workers usually get the most expensive pensions. (Joshua Sudock – File Photo)
By Teri Sforza / Staff Columnist
May 23, 2016 – Updated: 6:36 a.m.
So if you don’t live in Irwindale, rejoice: There, even when you look at it through rose-colored glasses, public pension liabilities equal $32,447 for each and every household in the city.
Slap on a skeptic’s glasses, and that load skyrockets to $134,907 per household.
Irwindale carries the heaviest pension load of more than 1,000 California public agencies whose data have been sliced and diced and posted for the world to see by the Stanford Institute for Economic Policy Research.
The heaviest loads in Orange County are in Newport Beach, Brea, Santa Ana, Anaheim and Costa Mesa, ranging from (rose glasses) $5,435 to $6,653 per household, or (skeptic’s) $15,976 to $19,062.
We’ll explain the glasses thing in a minute. But no surprise here: The older cities have had their own in-house police and fire departments for decades, and public safety workers usually get the most expensive pensions.
That comes clear in the incredible lightness of being a newer-fangled city, which contracts out for police and fire services (and thus doesn’t carry that pension load on its books): Aliso Viejo, $32 per household (rose) or $126 (skeptic’s); Laguna Woods, $32 or $121; Rancho Santa Margarita, $72 or $239.
Of course, that load winds up somewhere. In the County of Orange – which provides police services to contract cities via its Sheriff’s Department – each of its 1 million or so households has a load equal to $5,108 (rose) or $14,840 (skeptic’s). That’s on top of whatever each household’s city (and other agency) loads may be.
Stanford’s PensionTracker.org launched last fall, initially listing local agencies, and last week added data for every state. California ranked seventh highest nationwide for debt-per-household when viewed through rose-colored glasses ($15,618); and third-highest in the nation when viewed through skeptic’s glasses ($77,700).
“I was a little surprised that the unfunded amount per household is as high as it is,” said Joe Nation, public policy professor at Stanford and director of the data project.
All told, California’s public pension systems are $281.5 billion short, including pension bond debt. Through Nation’s lens, they’re nearly $1 trillion in the hole – or $946.4 billion.
Nation, a Democrat who served in the Legislature for six years, might be considered a card-carrying progressive. He represented Marin County, where Democrats and decline-to-states constitute nearly 80 percent of registered voters. He authored bills on greenhouse gas labeling for cars, fuel efficiency standards for tires and tax incentives for alternative energy.
Nonetheless, Nation has earned the wrath of public employee unions – a traditional Democratic power base – with his jarring analyses of public pension debt.
Stanford scholars have simply been calculating how deeply in debt pension systems will be if they earn less-rosy-than-anticipated returns on investments.
The rose-colored glasses refer to the shortfalls calculated by officials themselves – what they expect if California’s pension systems earn what officials say they’ll earn, which is currently 7.5 percent or so. Through this “actuarial” lens, they’re $241.4 billion short. That’s a staggering 38 times larger than in 2003, when the shortfall was $6.3 billion. Nation adds in bond debt issued to beef up pension funds, arriving at his $281.5 billion actuarial total.
To read expanded column, click here.