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Archive for the ‘California and Los Angeles Finances’ Category

The first thought that popped into my mind when Governor Brown proposed his gas tax hike was former mayor Villaraigosa’s infamous trash collection fee increase.

You may recall, the fee was hyped as a means to hire 1,000 new LAPD officers.

Less than half that number were hired; the rest of the funds went to overhead,

As I told NPR’s Patt Morrison and the LA Weekly in interviews back in 2008, controls and reporting are insufficient  to assure the proper allocation of taxes and fees.

This is especially true with state tax revenues, which are allocated to various funds, including those at the local level.  At every layer, allocations are made for multiple purposes. Such is the case with gasoline taxes. They are also used to fund mass transit and other transportation projects unrelated to automobiles. Gasoline excise tax revenue is also used to pay the debt service on highway bonds (Brown’s proposal is an excise tax), effectively relieving the general fund of the obligation.

This all makes for quite a trail to follow. Few individuals have the time or wherewithal to do so.

Determining how much of gas taxes actually improve roads is almost a fool’s errand. Politicians know this and use it to their advantage.  Lack of accountability gives them all the cover they need to divert funds.

This much is known: Brown’s plan would increase taxes by $52 billion; $7.5 billion would go to public transportation and another $1 billion for bike lanes and walkways, not exactly what you would call road and bridge improvements.

It also includes a constitutional amendment requiring spending to be limited to transportation projects.  And Villaraigosa’s trash fee was supposed to cover hiring officers.

You can be assured that new definitions of transportation will abound if the proposal is passed. If it fails – and it could – don’t be surprised if it is resurrected.

Here’s an idea: instead of the tax increase, let’s just pass a constitutional amendment requiring all existing gas tax revenue be spent on roads and bridges.  We might then see a major decrease in the maintenance backlog.

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The Government Accounting Standards Board (GASB) is pretty clear about how it wants state or local governments to report Net Pension Liability. As stipulated by its Statement 68,  on the face of the financial statements, not buried in the morass of footnotes.

But the City of Los Angeles did not read the memo.

A quick survey of the Comprehensive  Annual Financial Reports (CAFR) of a few major cities – New York, Seattle and San Francisco – show compliance.

There are probably a few, besides Los Angeles, who have failed to do so, but weak oversight by GASB is a prescription for sloppiness.

There is no shortage of other professional or authoritative materials on the subject, for example, articles published by the AICPA, such as this government brief.

This is also the second year in a row where the liability was not reported on the face of the financial statements. … and the pronouncement has only been in effect for two years! Although the required footnote disclosures were included, footnotes amplify the contents of the standard accounting reports; they are not a substitute.

Before I go any further, why is this even important?

Analysts, accountants and numbers geeks will know to dive into the footnotes, so who cares if it is not staring at the users on the face of the balance sheet, or statement of net position, as it is also called?

As GASB and others have clearly stated, it is about transparency.

As residents, we are the most important recipients of the city’s financial statements.  We live here and bear the consequences of our elected officials’ decision-making; the financial effects of which are imparted in the CAFR. Even though only a fraction of the residents bother cracking open the CAFR, and those that do rarely get into the footnotes, there is an obligation to provide complete disclosure.  Anything less is implicitly misleading and a disservice.

I would not be as irritated or concerned if this had not occurred before, but suspect political pressure is behind not reporting the NPL as evidently as it should. And that rankles me more…as it should you!

Most of our officials depend on the support of the public unions to fund their campaigns. In return, they receive generous retirement benefits that come at a high cost to the residents of the city.  Shining the light on the $7 billion net liability that has been incurred to support these plans is not in their best interests. It’s much safer to bury it in a line with other long-term liabilities. Doing so does not invite questions.

The NPL is over 50% of the total long-term liability in the governmental activities segment.  It cries out for the specific recognition GASB 68 mandates.

To make matters worse, the footnotes downplay its significance by stating it is not, by itself, evidence of economic or financial difficulties.

Tell that to the city of Richmond, CA, which faces the prospects of bankruptcy.  Its residents are already feeling the impact of diminished services, the result of diverting more of the budget to pay for pensions. Add San Bernardino, Stockton and Vallejo to the list, too.  Others will follow.

In Los Angeles, we cannot afford to increase the police budget to deal with the rising crime rate.

So while our officials avoid the subject, we will pay more for less service.  That’s the city’s plan to deal with the problem.

The City Controller is in a position to educate the public about the dangers of ignoring this bleak prospect. Ron Galperin has the wherewithal and the standing to heighten awareness, but if he is not willing to at least give it the basic recognition it warrants on the face of the balance sheet, where it is more visible, then it is unlikely to get any attention at City Hall.

Galperin has not shied away from auditing waste and abuse, however unpopular that has been among some powerful forces. He is still the most effective City Controller we’ve had, but he must lead the charge to fight the pension cancer, which is consuming our city from the inside.

The NPL is the tip of an iceberg.  Pretending it is not there will only run the city into the rest of it.

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I had a firsthand look of the chaos bestowed on the population by the passage of Prop 47. As almost all of you know, the measure raised the threshold of a felony and led to the early release of many career criminals.

A neighbor’s house was ransacked and robbed last night.  The family was on an errand for a period of less than two hours, not a long time by most measures, but far more than enough time for criminals to do their deed.

I talked with the LAPD officers who were investigating.  When I mentioned there has been a steady increase of property crimes in the community since the passage of Prop 47, the officer piped right up, “We are seeing an influx of thieves from other states. They know the odds of going to jail are slim.”

There have been steady reports posted to Nextdoor about burglaries in Valley Village.  As president of the homeowners’ association, I am acutely aware of this growing problem, which effects many communities in Los Angeles.  I have lived here since 1986 and have never before seen such a spike in crimes.

Many of the crimes are brazen – carried out in broad daylight.  Thieves have walked all the way up driveways to break into cars, not simply satisfied to target those parked on the street. That takes some cajones…and desperation, a combination that is dangerously explosive and could indicate a propensity for violence by the perpetrators.

It is bad enough that thousands of professional burglars have flooded the streets after early release; we have also become a magnet for out-of-state talent, as the LAPD officer related.

The people of California voted for Prop 47. It was supported by the top elected officials in the state.  It even had the support of New Gingrich!

It is time for the state’s voters to reverse this truly misguided policy.  It will require a new ballot measure, and, in the short run, legislation mitigating the impact of 47.

It is also time to build new prisons.  Instead of selling bonds to construct an extraordinarily expensive  high-speed train, let’s invest in state-of-the-art prisons which have the facilities for addressing and correcting the causes of recidivism. There will always be those who do not respond to intervention – they will ultimately require a lifetime of incarceration, so the capacity must be in place to deal with them as well.

Opponents to this would claim we cannot incarcerate ourselves out of a growing, statewide crime wave.  The converse for that argument is more grounded in reality – we cannot reduce crime by rapidly increasing the supply of criminals, as Prop 47 has done.

 

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Would you agree to guarantee a contractor a virtually unlimited amount of funds to build a house?

If the answer is “yes,” then there are some business people in Nigeria who would like to talk to you.

The MTA board may as well relocate its office to Lagos.

By an 11-2 vote, the board approved a permanent sales tax which is estimated to raise $860 million per year in today’s dollars. Theoretically, forever.

Proponents of the measure argue that the voters can always rescind it down the line if they are not happy with the results.

What would be the odds of success? Average citizens would have to not only organize a grassroots movement, but raise many millions of dollars to fight proponents backed by the deep pockets and logistics of developers.

We do need to raise many billions of dollars for transportation projects, but there must be accountability. An unlimited stream of cash will not incentivize the MTA and its contractors to manage budgets. Only the sobering reality of losing future funding offers a chance of ensuring financial discipline. It’s a fact of life – MTA board members will come and go. They will not have to live up to long-term promises.

The Measure attempts to assuage the concerns of the residents with the formation of oversight committees and independent audits, but there are no legal requirements for the MTA to implement recommendations or fix audit findings.

The only way to control the effective use of funds is by requiring the MTA board to re-approach the voters periodically – say in 20 years initially, then every 5-10 years thereafter, to up the level of funding. If they want to exceed the 40-year horizon of the proposed wave of projects, they must earn our support first by demonstrating cost-effective and timely progress.

Putting the onus on the passengers of a train to prevent a trainwreck, rather than insisting that the engineer apply the brakes before one occurs, is “bass ackwards.”

But that is essentially what Measure M will do by almost certainly assuring unlimited funding.

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Both the New York Times and LA times have recently published informative articles about the status of public pensions, particularly Calpers. LA Times’ Jack Dolan and James Koren have provided sober analysis in recent weeks.

The reporters have echoed the same concerns I, Jack Humphreville, respected members of academia and many in other publications have been sounding for years – concerns over the diminishing sustainability of the defined benefit plans that almost every politician at the state and local government levels have ignored. A few, including Governor Brown and former Governor Schwarzenegger, have attempted modest reforms and failed, because of the death-grip public unions have on our elected officials.

The NY Times article, by Mary Williams Walsh, is particularly interesting because it reads like a case study. For all intents and purposes, it is one. It deals with a small fund managed by Calpers. Since this particular fund is so small, it is easier for readers to wrap their heads around the math. But it is the same math behind every other defined benefit plan, large and small. Just as a lab experiment on a single cancerous cell can speak volumes about the greater disease, so can this case shed light on the cancer of public pensions.

Basically, the problem boils down to using aggressive favorable assumptions to gauge the financial health of plans, plans which are required to fully guarantee the promises made to their members. The assumptions have masked the weakness of the underlying numbers.

The important difference between a market vs actuarial approach to funding defined benefit plans is critical, as the article suggests. As the small pension unit in the article learned, Calpers charged them the market rate to liquidate the plan, which was a sum far greater than the actuarial value Calpers uses to assess the health of any plan.

Quite a shock to the participants who assumed things were just peachy.

Calpers wants it both ways: use the blue-sky view for public disclosure, but penalize participants based on reality. It’s called “having your cake and eating it too” (a few of my colleagues at Citywatch know how much I detest that expression, but it applies here).

The truth is, Calpers should not be hanging its hat on one approach vs the other. A range of values needs to be shared with the public, and funding should be based on at least a blend of outcomes.

That means either taxpayers fork over more money, or the participating employees contribute more. The taxpayers are already covering too much, not to mention bearing the risk if there are insufficient funds to pay participants.

How much more participants should pay is arguable, but it would cause some degree of pain in any event – manageable pain.

In the private sector, typical employees pay 6.2% for SSA retirement and contribute at least 6% into a 401K. State employees contribute anywhere from 5% to 11.5% of their salaries. Pretty good compared to the 12.2% absorbed by their counterparts. Safety workers are at the higher end, but can retire much earlier and collect up to 90% of their salaries.

A private-sector worker would pay $1 million to purchase an annuity comparable to an average CalPERS’ benefit starting at age 60. A state employee earning an average of $100,000 and contributing 10% would pay in $300,000 over 30 years in gross terms. Obviously, discounting the amount would lower it considerably.

That’s a pretty large gap. In any event, Calpers would still be a good deal for employees if their contribution rates doubled.

And why not?

Investors pay more, in the form of a lower yield, for less exposure to risk. Why shouldn’t public employees pay a premium for what is a risk-free, lifetime benefit?

The system is not going to collapse tomorrow. It’s similar to a sinking ship, which takes on water but stays afloat….that is until buoyancy is lost.

When that happens, it goes down faster than the Edmond Fitzgerald.

Time to start pumping and sealing the leak.

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Through the efforts of Valley Village Homeowners Association and Neighborhood Council Valley Village, a homeless encampment along the 170 embankment, adjacent to Valley Village Park, was cleared.

Since the camp was on Cal Trans property, we asked for and received support from our State Assembly Member. The CHP posted warnings before arranging for the removal of the personal items and trash – there was a considerable amount of the latter.

I was not around to witness the intervention, but there is every reason to believe it was handled as responsibly as possible. No complaints were filed; no reports of violence or excessive force.

The North Hollywood side of the 170 has a homeless problem of its own, too, especially along Tujunga Avenue, where a dozen or so RVs and vans have become permanent fixtures, and homeless prowl the grounds of the Amelia Earhart Regional Library.

While I am pleased by the removal of the Valley Village Park camp, I acknowledge society’s failure in dealing with the underlying problem.

The knee-jerk reaction would be to cast a vote for the city’s proposed $1.2B bond measure, the objective of which is to acquire land and construct housing. It is certainly preferable over a parcel tax, but the cost ultimately still flows through our property tax bills.

But I am not ready to support handing the City Council (or the County Supervisors, for that matter) massive amounts of money when there is no outline or plan to organize, manage and, most importantly, perform timely audits of effectiveness. I would feel a little optimistic if the activities were supervised by financially responsible officials – competent individuals, say someone comparable to City Controller Ron Galperin. Unfortunately, there isn’t enough of Ron to go around.

Whatever the plan, if it does not recognize the distinct challenges posed by the two major component groups of the homeless population – economic victims and those afflicted by mental illness or substance abuse – it is doomed to fail. The plan must allow for triage: the chances of helping the former group are far greater than the latter. $1.2 Billion may sound like a lot, but is is less than $50K for each of the estimated 26,000 homeless. How much housing and services can $50K buy?

We need to focus, then, on making the maximum impact and accept the fact there will be many who are beyond assistance. I am referring to the persons who require institutionalization. Sadly, our laws prevent involuntary medical intervention.

Progress has its own issues, too. There is truth to the line from the film Field of Dreams, “Build it and they will come.” Even if we achieve a degree of success, there is a risk: we will create a magnet for new waves of homeless persons from other regions, which would offset, if not overwhelm, our capacity to deal with the problem.

Triage is the practical approach, then. Help the homeless in manageable increments. Also, a one-size-fits-all style of housing will not work. Everything from dormitories to well-organized, military-type camps must be considered. Experimentation will be required. We should not hand over a billion dollars until officials can provide evidence of success on a limited scale first.

Lastly, we must not dig ourselves a deeper hole. It is absolute insanity to encourage the destruction of serviceable, affordable housing units, as the city presently does. I was heartened to hear the news that the Neighborhood Integrity Initiative received many more signatures than necessary to qualify for the March 2017 ballot. Without it, our elected officials would be content to create the next generation of homeless in exchange for campaign contributions from developers.

And you are unlikely to find a homeless politician in this city or any other.

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State Senator Bob Hertzberg is a smart man; smart enough to know the power of language. According to his bio, as an undergraduate English major, he wrote a 400-page handbook titled A Commonsense Approach to English.

To paraphrase a quote attributed to the late US Senator Everett Dirksen: A deft turn of a definition here, and a subtle re-characterization there, the next thing you know, we are dealing with some serious money!

And that has been Hertzberg’s game plan since he returned to the legislature in December 2014.

He introduced SB 8, a bill cloaked by a seemingly harmless name – the Upward Mobility Act. The senator described it as a tool to “modernize” the state’s tax structure. He admitted it would be designed to yield another $10B in tax revenue.

The bill died, but that did not stop Bob from reintroducing a replacement: SB 1445.

As SB 8 proposed, this new bill would extend the application of sales tax to services, a direct hit to all segments of society – the middle class, most notably. As he did with SB 8, he is characterizing it as “modernization.”

The only thing being modernized is the state’s access to our wallets.

But the “serial hugger” is not stopping there.  He again whipped out his English to Taxation dictionary to conjure up SB 1298.

His objective is to do an end run around Prop 218’s requirement for voter approval of tax increases by redefining “sewer service” to include stormwater projects. Perhaps “serial wordsmith” would serve as a better moniker for him. Please read the excellent editorial concerning 1298 in the Daily News. 

The bill has a worthwhile objective.  It is designed to encourage recovery of stormwater. No one is arguing with the benefits it offers to our drought-stricken state.

But it is dangerous to override the benefits of government transparency and the legislative process.

Californians are being asked to pony up more cash to fund a growing list of expensive projects.  In Los Angeles alone, we are being asked to pass a permanent increase in the sales tax for the MTA.  The city and county are considering spending over a billion dollars to provide housing to the homeless.  There is also the trainwreck of HSR absorbing funds that could be used to enhance the state’s water capacity.

Our state and local governments have no grasp of prioritization.  Capital budgeting is completely absent in the minds of Hertzberg, his colleagues in Sacramento and counterparts at the local level.

Taxpayers have a right to weigh in on what needs attention and the means of paying.  To do so requires presenting the big picture of competing needs. Let the people decide what is most important and authorize appropriate funding levels.

We do not have unlimited funds; we can only afford what can be sustained without breaking the bank.

Sneaking around the voters and playing word games, as Hertzberg has been doing, is disrespectful to all of us.

 

 

 

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