Friday, November 13, 2009

Fiscal Armageddon - Time for Tough Choices

The October revenue report for the state of Michigan has been released, and there's very little good news to be had. Revenues were again below the most recent projections. October saw tax collections that were $31 million below expectations. The best real-time indicators of economic activity, sales taxes and income tax withholding, are both down, again.

Due to the near-complete collapse of state revenues, the cuts have (finally) been forthcoming. Public schools received per-pupil cuts of approximately $300 for the current fiscal year. State agencies have been ordered by the governor to cut 10% of their budgets. The cycle of layoffs and reduced revenues continues.

The result? Governor Granholm and the MEA have begun hyperventilating. This week they staged a massive lobbying effort to get legislators to increase taxes. Apparently they don't require Economics 101 in teacher colleges.

On the city level, Grand Rapids has seen a similar decline in income tax revenues and property tax revenues will probably see declines due to historic drops in resale values of homes and commercial property. Immediately upon announcing the layoffs of 125 city employees, Mayor Heartwell called for a ballot question to raise taxes in the city. He claims there hasn't been a tax increase in 15 years. Apparently the constant reduction of the personal income tax exemption, the added property tax bill "service fee," and the increase in trash collection property tax don't count as tax increases in the mayor's book.

Oh, and don't forget that The Rapid is coming back, probably in early 2010 to ask, again, for a tax increase to build the redundant and wasteful "Silver Line" bus service, to clog up Division during rush hour.

But the fiscal problems are just beginning, and there is very little sign that anyone is proposing real solutions. The "easy" way out, increasing taxes, will only work so much. They will run in to the law of diminishing returns. The speaker of the state house, Democrat Andy Dillon, apparently grew some huevos and bucked his MEA masters by proposing the pooling of all public school health plans into one statewide health plan. The MEA, fearing the loss of their money-laundering cash cow health plan MESSA, promptly went ape-sh*t. This illustrates the difficulty of real, substantive change at the state level. So many special interests peddling their influence (in the form of money) makes it nearly impossible to propose an innovative solution to the state's structural budget problems.

Of course, then there are the unsustainable defined-benefit Ponzi public pension plans. They will fail. It's just a matter of time. Even politicians can't repeal the laws of compounding numbers. But I'm sure they will try.

But we should turn to the local level, where real people can have the most chance of affecting change. We can, as a city, choose to continue down the ultimately disastrous path of "the easy way out," or we can have real, substantive change in how city government does business.

A quick overview of what's going on at the local level: As state revenue declines, so does the state subsidy to cities called revenue sharing. Revenue sharing has been on the decline for several years. City leaders keep pointing to how much has been "lost," but their complaints fall on deaf ears - or at least ears that understand that cities fall further back in line from other special interest groups.

As revenue sharing declines, so have city income tax receipts. The city's income tax revenue is down 14% (apparently year on year).

Not only has revenue been on the decline, the gigantic hydrogen bomb of the city's pension system is preparing to detonate. The city's 2010 fiscal plan (published before the layoffs were announced this week), is available here. One paragraph should stand out and set off all the alarm bells in the city:
In FY2007 our two pension retirement trusts were 110% and 120% funded.  Both employer and employee contribution levels were at or near the lowest possible levels.  This advantage was eliminated by the breathtaking decline of the financial markets over the past 18 months.  We now know that our retirement funds are significantly underfunded. This means that both employee and employer contributions must move dramatically higher.  Proposed changes to actuarial assumptions and plan provisions will freeze employee contributions at the bottom of the contribution range and provide additional time for the City to adjust to higher employer contributions.  Nonetheless, the employer share will go from 7.7% in to 9.29% in FY2010, and 13.62% in FY2011 for the General Pension and from an FY2010 rate of 0% to an estimated 23% in FY2011 for the Police/Fire Pension.  These percentages assume that we will be able to implement critical smoothing techniques that will mitigate the intense upward pressure on required contributions. The increase in employer funding requirements contributed to the FY2010 GOF operating deficit of $2.9 million.  Unless we see a significant increase in the market value of retirement plan assets over the next couple of years, the estimated pension contribution will continue to rise. (emphasis mine)

Translation: 2010 layoffs are just the beginning. Fiscal Year 2010 includes a pension contribution (as a percentage of salaries) for the police and fire employees of 0%. Yes, 0%. This will go from 0% to 23% (of salaries) in one year. A search of the fiscal plan shows that total personnel costs for police and fire are about $67 million. Let's back out about 40% of that (just a wild guess) to come to actual base salary cost. We come up with about $40 million. Now,  re-read the above paragraph. The city is going from contributing $0 in the current fiscal year to the police and fire pension plan to (my estimate) of 23% of salaries in 2011 - or about $10 million. The increase in contributions for the other defined-benefit pension participants on the city's payroll will increase from 9.29% this year to 13.62% next year. This is unsustainable.

The mayor's solution? Raise taxes.

Lest I be declared someone who only points out problems and no solutions, here are a few suggestions:

  1. Lay off all non-essential employees. This includes the "equal opportunity" department of five people.

  2. Outsource information technology (IT) services.

  3. Eliminate the Office of Children, Youth, and Families.

  4. Convert all employees, now, to a defined-contribution retirement plan. NOW.

  5. Eliminate the Downtown Development Authority. This entity sucks up about $17 million of local property tax revenue that would normally go to the city's general operating fund. The DDA also currently owns the Van Andel Arena. Sell the arena, pay off the outstanding bonds, and use the excess to pay off some of the DeVos Place bonds. The DDA currently operates as a taxpayer-funded subsidy to developers, giving away free money to those who ask.

  6. Implement a fire department response fee. Most (if not all) homeowners insurance plans offer coverage if you're charged for fire department response.

  7. Eliminate the city's trash collection services. There is a special property tax levied for this. There are plenty of private trash haulers. Once the trash collection services are eliminated, go to voters and ask them if it's ok to convert the current trash levy on property tax to a general fund levy so that it can be spent on other city services (including police).

  8. Contact every citizen and ask them what their priorities are. Do you prefer Police and smooth roads, or do you prefer an equal opportunity department and subsidies for developers?

If serious, dramatic changes are not implemented, the city will go bankrupt. This has started to happen in other states. There is no chance in h*ll that the economy is going to return to anywhere near where it was at the peak of the last cycle in 2007 - at least not any time soon.

Tough choices need to be made now - if our politicians can stomach it.

Friday, November 6, 2009

"Stimulus" FAIL

Just keep this chart in mind when they come back, in the near future, for debtslaveryus stimulus 2.0. Remember - the politicians are lying to you.