Two elephants entered a special meeting of the City’s Budget and Finance Committee on Wednesday, November 12, and councilmembers donned their blinders to be certain not to see them. The two elephants were very inconvenient truths appearing as a result of studies by Joe Esuchanko, a consulting actuary for the City of San Diego.
The first was a bombshell: Esuchanko, discussing the sad status of the San Diego City Employees’ Retirement System, displayed a chart showing that the system’s unfunded liability was $2.2 billion on June 30, up almost a billion dollars from mid-2007. On October 31, that number had grown to $2.8 billion. That meant that the pension system was only 58 percent funded on October 31. Repeat: 58 percent funded. Actually, that percentage was almost certainly worse on the day of the meeting because stocks had continued plummeting from October 31 through November 12.
For the fiscal year that began this summer, the City will have to plunk $245 million into the pension fund, according to Esuchanko. The City would like to put in $160 million. “There is a relatively stable workforce, but benefits are accelerating at a rate much faster than the creation of assets,” said City Attorney Mike Aguirre, who had presented Esuchanko’s figures to the council on the previous Monday, then invited Esuchanko to give the awful news in person two days later. Most councilmembers, who were looking into the City’s fiscal fix out to 2014, were clearly upset by the intrusion. They were busy looking for nickels and dimes, not billions — or fleas, not elephants.
Then there was the second Esuchanko elephant. Toward the end of the all-day session, Councilmember Donna Frye prodded chief operating officer Jay Goldstone on the subject of the Deferred Retirement Option Plan, called DROP, in which employees declare at the average age of 55 that they will retire in five years and then continue to draw their salaries in one pot while piling up 90 percent of that salary at 8 percent annual interest in another pot. This classic double-dipping scheme was adopted by the council on a trial basis in 1997, made permanent in 2000, and later killed for new hires. Frye reminded Goldstone that the municipal code requires that DROP be revenue-neutral. She asked him if any actuary had done a study recently.
Goldstone allowed that Esuchanko had done one about a year ago. Result: DROP was not revenue-neutral. (Much earlier, another actuary had found the same thing.) Frye said that if the program by law should be revenue-neutral, and it is not, “We should do something about it.” Goldstone was noncommittal.
There was other friction early in the day, right after Esuchanko gave his presentation on the pension gap. Frye inquired why David Wescoe, chief executive officer of the pension system, was not there. Asked Frye, “Do we have the ability to issue him a summons, as we do with others?” Aguirre wondered if the council could freeze the system’s administrative budget.
It turned out that Wescoe had talked with Goldstone a few days earlier. Frye is often suspicious when a bureaucrat talks with another bureaucrat on some topic but doesn’t show up and speak publicly before the council. “For them [pension officials] to not come over to see us is outrageous,” Frye told me at the noon recess.
I contacted pension system offices. Wescoe called me. He said that the Esuchanko numbers would have no impact on the 2009 budget (the current one). “I would want to see [Esuchanko’s estimates] in writing and go over them” with the pension system’s actuary, said Wescoe. “I did not know Esuchanko was coming. Nobody called me.” I told him that Aguirre had recited the figures at a council meeting on Monday, and while mainstream media had ignored them, they had been on my Reader blog on Tuesday. “I don’t read your blog. I don’t read any blogs,” quoth he. He refused to comment on the 58 percent funded figure. He said he would be willing to meet with the council, and he affirmed that in a hand-delivered letter to the council later in the day. But on Friday, just to be certain, Frye sent him a summons to attend the November 19 meeting.
Councilmember Jim Madaffer put a happy face on Esuchanko’s grim numbers. Pension performance is cyclical, he said. “There will be peaks and valleys,” and today we are in a very deep valley, he conceded. The world’s financial system is “managing” the crisis, Madaffer claimed. Other cities and states are also experiencing low funding levels now, he said, without being specific. This has been the oft-recited line of Councilmember Scott Peters and others who have refused to recognize that the pension system is in trouble as global stock markets crater.
Obviously, Madaffer was unaware of a growing consensus among economists that 2008 is a watershed year, marked by a collapse of both Wall Street and Main Street. This is why Barack Obama kept saying that this is the greatest economic crisis since the 1930s. In fact, a day before Wednesday’s council-committee session, none other than John Thain, chief executive of Wall Street’s Merrill Lynch (soon to be part of Bank of America), said that the global economy is seriously stalled and won’t bounce back quickly. Thain said we have to look back to 1929 “to see the kind of slowdown we are experiencing now.” The day after the budget session, President Bush said, “We are faced with the prospect of a global meltdown” and it “won’t be solved quickly.”
Aguirre took up the Obama/Bush/Thain deep-crisis theme. This is not merely a cyclical experience, greatly because of the subprime mortgage crisis and the derivatives to which they are tied, said the city attorney. More than half of the pension system’s portfolio is in domestic and foreign stocks, and that’s too high, he said — a point he has been making for some time. Aguirre said he has been working with pensions for 30 years, and when systems go sour, the victims immediately go into denial. He said the City should consider going into Chapter 9 reorganization. It should hire expert consultants that could give advice on the matter — specifically, the firm that counseled Vallejo to go into bankruptcy.
For a long time on November 12, the Esuchanko figures didn’t come up, as the councilmembers asked Goldstone and other officials about, often, minuscule matters. Then it was time to punish Aguirre for daring to have Esuchanko present disquieting numbers. Councilmembers Kevin Faulconer and Ben Hueso complained that the city attorney’s office was spending more than $1 million above budget. Hueso asked how any City entity could operate over its budget. “What are they getting around? How is this possible? How do we assure that we keep people on budget?” he asked. Then, dripping with piety, he added, “I’ve been making cuts every year. I’ve been very frugal in my office.”
Aguirre was not there at the time. He explained to me later that he had been running $100,000 a month over budget and was going to let some lawyers go to close the gap; now that he has lost the election, he will leave that to his successor, Jan Goldsmith.
The bigger question — far, far bigger — is what a small-minded council will do about the gap that Esuchanko exposed.