Pension study says city OK for now, but trouble may lie ahead: Rate obligation could increase substantially in next couple of years

A recently completed study on the state of the city’s California Public Employees’ Retirement System (CalPERS) obligations revealed that Los Altos’ contributions may rise significantly by the end of the decade.

The study, presented at the Oct. 8 Los Altos City Council meeting, took the city’s Financial Commission more than 100 hours to complete.

The study concluded that while the city may not see near-term financial challenges – noting previous city efforts to help lower its obligations – Los Altos’ public employee pension contribution rates may increase by as much as 30-40 percent over a five-year period starting in fiscal year 2015-2016. CalPERS has been managing the city’s pension plans – totaling more than 270 plans for active and retired employees – since 1960.

Reached by the Town Crier, Los Altos Finance Director Russ Morreale said the city’s position would be far worse, if not for steps in recent years to mitigate some obligations.

According to Morreale, a CalPERS side-fund paydown saved the city between $4 million and $5 million in liability over the past five years. The city also adopted a second tier of retirement plans to reduce benefit costs and established a $600,000 reserve fund this year to weather future sticker shock, he said. Morreale called the potential 30-40 percent rate increase outlined in the report a “pretty conservative estimate.”

“The city has taken the right actions, but there are some significant challenges ahead of us,” said Morreale, who echoed a similar tone during the city’s budget review process in June. “We are expecting significant rate increases.”

Per the commission report, Morreale noted that city pensions are now 77 percent funded, slightly higher than the CalPERS pension system as a whole at 74 percent, as of June 2011 data. The city has a net unfunded market liability of $21 million.

“That is a long-term liability – it doesn’t have to be paid tomorrow – but what it does indicate is that funding levels are lower than preferred,” he said. “I don’t think anyone is content with 77 percent.”

The report pointed to several factors, including fluctuating annual returns on CalPERS investments – 3.8 percent over the past five years but as high as 9.5 percent over a 30-year term – for the murky outlook. Conversely, CalPERS operates pension investments under an assumed return rate – also known as an assumed discount rate – of 7.5 percent. A 2011-2012 Santa Clara County Civil Grand Jury called the actuarial rate “unrealistically high,” the report noted.

Other factors outlined include legislation and the 2008 financial crisis, as well as longer life expectancy of retirees than originally assumed. The report noted that the upcoming outcome of a current review by CalPERS of its investment policies and actuarial methods will likely lead to future rate increases.

“Changes are coming. CalPERS is reformulating, if you will,” Morreale said. “Most likely, we’ll be in a higher rate environment, so stay cautious – that’s the message here.”

The report concluded that terminating CalPERS plans via a buyout isn’t recommended. A buyout, the report outlined, carries a cost of $62 million – which Morreale termed “unaffordable, given the money involved.” In that scenario, CalPERS would apply a “risk-free” investment return based on U.S. Department of Treasury rates, according to the study.

To read the pension study, visit the city of Los Altos website at

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