By Hans Teerds
“Wherever men come together, in whatever numbers, public interests come into play.… And the Public Realm is formed. In America where there are still spontaneous associations, which then disband again – the kind of associations already described by Tocqueville – you can see this very clearly. Some public interests concerns a specific group of people, those in a neighborhood or even in just one house or in a city or in some other sort of group. Then these people will convene, and they are very capable of acting publicly in these matters – for they have an overview of them.”
-- Hannah Arendt, “What Remains? The Language Remains” [interview with Günther Gaus]
In a neighborhood in Amsterdam where we lived, a group of neighbors joined forces in order to halt a little playground’s deterioration. The playground had been maintained for decades by the public services of the municipality. However, in the last decade, due to budget cuts and a changing perspective on the role of a municipality within urban society, the playground slowly but surely went into decay. Despite the closing of the fences, the playground was still in heavy use. So the neighbors decided to do something. A committee was set up, a list of volunteers formed, and a letter to the municipality written. And it succeeded: the municipality in the end embraced this initiative and was able to push aside all formalistic and bureaucratic procedures. The neighboring committee was allowed to open up the playground on Wednesday afternoons for when the kids arrived home from school. On the weekends, they were also allowed to operate a cabin next to the sandpit, from which they could loan buckets, shovels, and small bikes to the kids; sell coffee and tea to comfort the parents; and on hot-summer days provide ice cream to be enjoyed by all. A new spirit has also run through the playground: the playground equipment has been refurbished and new materials have been bought. Today this place is very popular – the sandpit almost overcrowded – and there are enough volunteers to fill the schedule of keeping an eye on the playground and to lend out materials.
Stephanie A. Miner, the Mayor of Syracuse NY, has an important op-ed essay in The NY Times Thursday. Syracuse is one of hundreds of cities around the state and tens of thousands around the country that are struggling with the potentially disastrous effects of out-of-control pension costs. Where this crisis is heading can be seen in California, where San Bernadino has become the third California city to declare bankruptcy. These cities are dying. They are caught in a bind. Either they decide not to pay their promised debts to pensioners; or, in honoring those debts, they so fully raise taxes and cut services as to ruin the lives of their citizens.
In Syracuse, Mayor Miner understands well the depth of the problem. First, public employee labor costs are too high not because salaries are high, but because pension costs and medical benefits are rising without limit. Second, revenues are being slashed, both from the recession and from cutbacks from the state and federal governments. Finally, the middle and upper class flight from cities to suburbs have left the tax base in cities low at the moment when poorer city dwellers are disproportionately in need of public services.
The result is that cities are faced with a stark choice: Do they pay older citizens what has been promised to them? Or do they cut those promised pensions in order to provide services for the young? This is a generational conflict that is playing out across the country.
Miner is worried that the response by NY State is making the problem worse. In short, Governor Cuomo and the legislature have decided to let cities that cannot afford to fund their burgeoning pension obligations borrow money to pay those pensions. The kicker is, that the cities are being told to borrow money from the very same pension plan to which they owe money.
If this sounds suspicious, it is. As Danny Hakim—one of the best financial reporters around—wrote almost exactly one year ago in the NY Times, this is a desperate and dangerous move:
When New York State officials agreed to allow local governments to use an unusual borrowing plan to put off a portion of their pension obligations, fiscal watchdogs scoffed at the arrangement, calling it irresponsible and unwise.
And now, their fears are being realized: cities throughout the state, wealthy towns such as Southampton and East Hampton, counties like Nassau and Suffolk, and other public employers like the Westchester Medical Center and the New York Public Library are all managing their rising pension bills by borrowing from the very same $140 billion pension fund to which they owe money.
The state’s borrowing plan allows public employers to reduce their pension contributions in the short term in exchange for higher payments over the long term. Public pension funds around the country assume a certain rate of return every year and, despite the market gains over the last few years, are still straining to make up for steep investment losses incurred in the 2008 financial crisis, requiring governments to contribute more to keep pension systems afloat.
Supporters argue that the borrowing plan makes it possible for governments in New York to “smooth” their annual pension contributions to get through this prolonged period of market volatility.
Critics say it is a budgetary sleight-of-hand that simply kicks pension costs down the road.
Borrowing from the state pension plan to pay municipal pension costs is simply failing to pay the pensions this year and thus having to pay more next year.
Hakim, as good as he is, allows Thomas P. DiNapoli—the state’s comptroller—to get away with calling the scheme “amortization.”
The state’s comptroller, Thomas P. DiNapoli, said in a statement, “While the state’s pension fund is one of the strongest performers in the country, costs have increased due to the Wall Street meltdown.” He added that “amortizing pension costs is an option for some local governments to manage cash flow and to budget for long-term pension costs in good and bad times.”
But how is this amortization? The assumption or hope is that the market will rise, the pension fund will go up, and then the municipalities will owe less. That is hardly amortization. No, it is desperate speculation with public monies.
The crisis in our cities afflicts the whole country, according to a study by the Pew Center on the States.
Cities employing nearly half of U.S. municipal workers saw their pension and retiree health-care funding levels fall from 79% in fiscal year 2007 to 74% in fiscal year 2009, using the latest available data, according to the Pew Center on the States. Pension systems are considered healthy if they are 80% funded.
The reason to pay attention to the problems in cities is that cities have even less ability to solve their pension shortfalls than states. The smaller the population, the more a city would have to tax each citizen in order to help pay for the pensions of its retired public workers. The result is that either cities get bailed out by states and lose their independence (as is happening in Michigan) or the cities file for bankruptcy (as is happening in California).
Mayor Miner, a Democrat, takes a huge risk in standing up to the Governor and the legislature. She is rightly insisting that they stop hiding from our national addiction to the crack-cocaine of unaffordable guaranteed lifetime pensions. Piling unpayable debts upon our cities will, in the end, bankrupt these cities. And it will continue the flight to the suburbs and the hollowing out of the urban core of America. Above all, it will sacrifice our future in order to allow the baby boomers to retire in luxury. Let’s hope Miner’s call doesn’t go unheeded.