Monday, February 22, 2010

Grand Rapids Income Tax Increase: It's the Pensions, Stupid.

The Grand Rapids City Commission voted last week to place a 15% income tax increase on the ballot May 4th. The vote was 6 to 0 in favor, showing a remarkable lack of leadership and critical thinking on the part of any of the city commissioners. I guess replacing Jim Jendrasiak in the 1st ward didn't matter after all. This tax increase request will be on a typical low turnout election day, which is always by design. It's easier to manipulate election results that way. Surely the city will mail out fliers listing the "benefits" of the proposed tax increase, without any obvious "vote yes" language, to get around state campaign financing laws.

However, the bottom line is this: 100% of the tax increase will go directly into the city's retirement pension system. This system is rapidly becoming unsustainable for a couple of reasons, which I'll outline below. The city manager is trying to make the case that this tax increase will somehow increase fire department coverage downtown, but that's a smokescreen to distract voters from the real fiscal disaster waiting in the wings.

The first, and most obvious reason for the sudden pension crisis is, of course, the current Great Recession. We're lucky in that the city publishes lots of information on their pension plans. You can peruse the information here: City of Grand Rapids - Retirement Systems. We can glean several things from the monthly pension reports. The graph below summarizes the balances of the pension funds.

The city maintains two pension funds. One is for the police and fire employees, the other (general) for all other employees. As of December 31, 2007, the combined balance of both funds was $753 million. As of December 31, 2008, the combined balance was $493 million, a stunning loss of $260 million, or -35%. This tells us important information. Much of the city's pension funds are clearly invested in risky assets, probably equities (stocks). For comparison, the S&P 500 stock index dropped 38% during the same period. This is an example of how the city's bureaucrats can promise bigger and bigger pension benefits during the good times. Since the pension fund obviously is sensitive to the market's ups and downs, the good times inflate the value of the pension funds, making it look like it's easier to offer better and better benefits without having to increase the city's costs.

But, then comes reality, crashing things down. When the market began to tank in 2007, it took the city's pension fund with it. This sort of drop slaughters the pension fund's solvency, and this is why the city must now contribute much more money just to keep the fund afloat. Of course, you'll notice that the fund has recovered, as of December 31, 2009, to the level of $590 million. This is an increase of approximately 20%, while the S&P 500 increased by 27% during the same period. The problem is that the current market rise has run out of steam. Over the last three months, the market is essentially flat and appears to have entered a new down trend.

If the city had simply invested in safer and more stable securities, such as US government bonds, the funds would be in far better shape. For instance, if the pension fund were invested in 30 year treasury bonds, the annual return would have been about 4.5%. Compounded annually, the city's pension funds would stand at about $836 million today, instead of $590 million (or a loss of around $246 million). But, a safe and secure growth rate like this would have constrained the city's ability to offer greater and greater levels of benefits. A conservative and thoughtful path of sustainable benefits was possible, but the city's leaders chose not to got that way.

So, what are the real consequences and costs of this problem? The graph below shows us the increase in the city's pension system contribution costs.

As you can see, the pension contribution cost is estimated to be $5.009 million this fiscal year (2010). This will increase to an estimated $26.66 million cost in 2015. That's a whopping 532% increase in just five years. Again, that's assuming a 7.5% stock market growth rate, so the reality may be much worse. But the important point of data is the difference in pension contribution costs between the current year and next year (2011). As stated, the current year's pension cost is about $5 million. Next year's is estimated to be $12.019 million. An increased cost of $7.01 million. Wait a minute. Where have I heard that number before? Ah, yes. Here:

News Headline: "Grand Rapids income tax increase could raise $7 million"

What's the logical conclusion? The entire tax increase will be spent on pensions. Oh, and that's just the first year. In 2012 the increased pension cost will be another $4 million. The year after that, an additional $3.5 million, and so on. By 2015, the city will have to raise taxes by $21 million a year, or three times more than the proposed tax increase, just to pay for pensions.

Are you ready to pony up?

But wait, there's more. Before readers try to make the argument that things would be fine without the current stock market conditions, please look deeper into the pension funds' built-in collapse. That's right - built-in collapse. This is the second reason for the current pension crisis.

It's been in front of our city leaders, but they have chosen not to deal with it. What am I talking about? The city receives an annual report on the pension system's health. You can read these reports here. The chart below is taken from this report (click on the chart to view it full size).

This chart shows us the number of active employees at the city who are participating in the pension plan versus the number of retired employees who are drawing benefits. This is generally referred to an active/retired employee ratio. In 1975 there were approximately 2.6 active employees for each retired employee. This means that the contributions made on behalf of the active employees were likely higher than the benefits being drawn by retired employees. Contrast this with the current ratio of close to one active employee for each retired employee. This means that active employees' and the city's pension contributions are likely just going straight out the door to pay for currently-retired employees. This trend will result in failure. It's the same principal as a Ponzi Scheme. Current "investments" just go right out to the door to pay benefits to others.

The following chart (from the same report) shows us the cost of pension benefits as a percentage of current employees' payroll (click to view full size):

This is the cost of unsustainable defined-benefit pension plans. As you can see, in 1975, the city contributed $5 for every $100 in payroll. This cost has ballooned to nearly $45 per $100 of payroll cost. You are now seeing exactly why the city budget has been squeezed. Even with fewer employees and a relatively flat budget, the city continually runs out of money and is forced to cut services.

We, as citizens, are seeing a degradation of basic city services so that pensions can be fully funded.

To put a cherry on top, the below is an excerpt from the pension report (Page B-1):
Voluntary Retirement. A member may retire after 30 years of service regardless of age, or after attaining age 62 and completing 8 years of service. Effective January 1, 2001, members covered by the Emergency Communications Operators Bargaining Unit, after attaining age 55 and completing 8 years of service. [emphasis added]

This means that if you're 62 and have worked for the city for only eight years, you get a lifetime pension. If you're part of the Emergency Communications Operators union, you can retire at 55 after only eight years of service. And you'll notice that this was approved as recently as 2001 by our city's leaders. The problem was compounded that recently. Now they think that citizens should pay for this through higher taxes.

The end result is that, due to our city leaders' absolute failure to manage finances well, they are trying to push the cost off onto taxpayers without doing anything to address the underlying problem. The politicians find it easier to raise taxes than deal with angry unions - and that's exactly what they are doing again. The city commission is afraid to tackle the real problem, so the easier path is to "kick the can down the road" and try and deal with it later. The problem is that eventually you are forced to deal with it. Instead of dealing with the issue when it was easy to manage, the city has gone beyond the point of being able to fix it without disruption. The current path of the city's pension fund is bankruptcy.

It's easy to spend and make promises when the times are good. But now the residents (and taxed non-residents) of Grand Rapids are being asked to pay for the politicians' and bureaucrats' inability to think ahead and act in their fiduciary capacity as representatives of the citizenry. Who do they work for? The city's unions or the city's citizens?

Tuesday, February 16, 2010

Michigan Unemployment Insurance Fund is Bankrupt

A little-discussed news item is that, as the Great Recession drags on, states are getting crushed under piles of borrowing to continue to pay unemployment benefits. As states run out of money, they begin to borrow from the Federal Government.

Why is this issue important? Because the state will eventually have to repay this borrowed money. We're talking about billions of dollars.

According to the web site Pro Publica, Michigan is the number two borrower of federal funds to pay unemployment benefits (behind California). The negative balance of the state's unemployment fund now stands at $3.429 billion. This negative balance is rising almost exponentially. In December alone, the state paid out $243 million more than it collected in unemployment taxes from employers.

2009's "stimulus" law contained a provision that allowed states to avoid interest payments through 2011, but the bill will eventually come due. The kicker is that higher unemployment taxes on employers will be imposed to attempt to pay this shortage back, but that will just serve to kill more jobs as businesses are saddled with even more costs of doing business.

As the private sector has collapsed under the weight of debt saturation, government has begun to take on the debt load.This won't end well.

The problem is that so many people are now dependent on government handouts, the political will to fix the situation will be almost impossible to come by. The entitlement  culture will only be curtailed where there is no other choice. And that may be sooner than we think.

We see our own microcosm of this with the crushing pension costs in Grand Rapids. The city's commission is asking for an income tax increase, 100% of which will go to pay pension costs. And that's just for the first year. They will have to come back to taxpayers to cover the tens of millions more they will need to pay just to keep the pension fund solvent. Let me repeat, just so it's clear. This income tax increase will do nothing to improve or prop up city services. It will go only to pay for pensions.

Multiply this by all the cities in Michigan by all the states in the nation by all the people on federal benefits.

Friday, February 12, 2010

Housing and Taxes

The City of Grand Rapids and several surrounding areas are considering tax increases this May to shore up local budgets. Of course, much of the reason is the Great Recession we are currently in. Much of the problem is that city governments outspent themselves and sold taxpayers down the road by promising unionized municipal workers very generous and unsustainable pension benefits. We'll address that issue soon because we are doing research on the coming budget armageddon in Grand Rapids due to the pension ponzi scheme problem. However, another piece of the puzzle is the decline in housing prices, which also leads to lower city government revenues.

We're hearing bleats from the likes of the National Association of Realtors that housing may be turning around and that prices are up. Prices may have ticked up slightly in some areas. This is due to a few government and bank policies that are distorting the market - temporarily.

First, The Federal Reserve has printed nearly $1.25 trillion of counterfeit money to buy Mortgage Backed Securities from Freddie Mac and Fannie May. This has had the affect of creating a market for mortgages that wouldn't have been there otherwise. This has kept rates low and loans easier to get. This program ends in March.

Second, we all know about the $8,000 first time homebuyer tax credit that was set to expire last year and was extended to April of this year. This also bumped up demand and prices, but at the expense of future demand and prices.

Third, banks and the government mortgage entities tried foreclosure moratoria to give borrowers time to catch up and work out loan modifications. This has been a failure and foreclosures are picking up again.

Some suggested reading material to learn more about these market-distorting policies:

According to Trulia, if you bought a house in Grand Rapids in 2005, the value of your house has dropped 25% or more. Anecdotal looks at housing in my personal experience shows a 30-40% decline.

The point is that the decline is not ending and more pain is to come. Foreclosures are increasing and more and more people are realizing that paying on a mortgage for a house that will take decades to regain its value is a waste of time, money, and worry. As I previously posted, the option of walking away from your mortgage is rapidly becoming more and more attractive. This is a good thing. Why? Because it clears the market more quickly and gets us to where we need to be (and will eventually end up anyways) in order to begin rebuilding the economy. The government has wasted, literally, trillions of dollars to prevent the inevitable.

Banks are trying very hard to make people believe that walking away from your mortgage is somehow immoral or shirking your responsibility. Yet banks and businesses walk away from mortgages all the time, because it's simply an economic decision.

See the article Double standard in mortgage walkaway:
NEW YORK — Tishman Speyer Properties walks away from 11,232 Manhattan apartments because it can't pay its mortgage. That's good business.

Rick Gilson, a college custodial supervisor in South Dakota, wants to walk away from the mortgage on his mobile home. If he does, he'll be a deadbeat.

Those two borrowers face the same financial dilemma: Their mortgages far exceed the values of their properties. Yet one gets to walk away without guilt, while the other can't.

Gilson is too scared to dump the mortgage on his mobile home. He owes $31,973, but the home is only worth about $14,000.

"I have 12 years of money put into this property that I will never get out," said the 50-year-old Gilson, from Rapid City, S.D. "But I am still paying because this is what I have been told to do. That's what I think is right."

Until now, the focus of the real estate crisis has been on individuals. One in four U.S. homeowners, or nearly 11 million Americans, are underwater on their mortgages. In some parts of the country — Florida, Nevada, Michigan, California and Arizona — the share tops 40 percent.

Some experts say it makes sense for some people to walk away if they're deeply underwater, even if doing so could wreck their credit score for seven years. It may not be worth it to keep paying a mortgage when they can find comparable rental housing for considerably less money.

The argument against walkaways is that they will wreak economic havoc if a lot of people do it. Banks will have more bad loans on their books. They'll make fewer loans. Home prices will plunge more.

The rules are different, though, for the walkaway of all walkaways.

That title is reserved for what happened to one of New York's trophy properties, the 56-building Stuyvesant Town and Peter Cooper Village complex. Spanning 80 acres on Manhattan's east side, it's the largest single-owned residential area in the city. Its red brick buildings, built by Metropolitan Life in the 1940s for World War II veterans, are still a haven for the city's middle class.

Commercial real-estate firm Tishman and its partner, investment firm BlackRock, paid $5.4 billion to buy the property from MetLife in late 2006 — right at the market's peak. They hoped to make money by converting rent-regulated apartments into luxury condos and raising rents.

Then the housing crash hit. The value now: $1.8 billion.

And you thought you overpaid for your house.

I suggest you read the entire article.

Just look at it this way - if it's significantly cheaper than your mortgage payment to rent a property similar to your current home, you're underwater and losing money each month.

Of course, if you decide that fixing your family's balance sheet is more important than propping up a bank, you should consult an attorney who specializes in foreclosure and short sales. Every state is different in terms of its real estate law, so you must get good advice before making the decision.

More on the local impact, and reaction, coming soon...

Wednesday, February 3, 2010

Appeal Your Grand Rapids Property Tax Assessment

2010's property tax assessment documents were sent out last month and you have a very small window of time to appeal your assessment. In many cases, taxable values went up while property values went down. The city of Grand Rapids has a web page with the required documentation you need to fill out for an appeal, available here.

There are several tools available online to see the values of homes that recently sold in your area for comparison to your own, such as and Be sure to look for the "recently sold" sections of those web sites. Since property values have dropped approximately 30% in the area, it's well worth it to challenge your taxable property values.

The Michigan Taxpayers Alliance also offers a DVD workshop that helps you with the process, for $10. You can check it out here.

State Representative Dave Hildenbrand offers a useful guide for appealing here.

Be aware, the deadline for filing appeals is February 12th!