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The Laura and John Arnold Foundation;
The Laura and John Arnold Foundation (LJAF) released "A Pivotal Moment: Assessing Houston's Plan for Pension Reform," a report that provides an in-depth analysis of the City of Houston's pension reform proposal currently pending in the Texas Legislature. The report finds that the proposal includes important changes that would help protect workers and taxpayers. The reform plan was developed following discussions between Mayor Sylvester Turner and the Houston Police Officers' Pension System, the Houston Municipal Employees Pension System, and the Houston Firefighters' Relief and Retirement Fund.LJAF Vice President Josh McGee and LJAF Sustainable Public Finance Analyst Paulina S. Diaz Aguirre co-authored the report after analyzing the city's proposal and conducting independent pension modeling. They say that it is incumbent on local leaders and state legislators to work together. "There are just a few weeks left in the 2017 session—and without the ability to make changes to the pension systems on its own—the city is running out of time," the report states. "Without changes, the debt could spiral into a full-scale financial crisis. The city cannot allow that to happen. Its financial future hangs in the balance and will be decided in large part in the next month."Houston currently owes $8.2 billion in pension debt—more than any other city in Texas. It does not have enough money to pay for nearly half of the retirement benefits workers have already earned. This unfunded liability threatens workers' retirement security and has a direct impact on city finances. During the past 10 years, the city has cut public safety positions even as spending on public safety has grown by hundreds of millions of dollars due to a 55 percent increase in pension costs.The proposal seeks to address critical flaws in the city's funding practices. Under the proposal, the city would lower its assumed rate of return on investments for all plans from 8 percent or more to 7 percent; reduce benefits for public workers; and implement a financial corridor provision that would cap the city's contributions to the pension plans.The financial corridor provision is a key element of the proposal. The provision would set a minimum and maximum city contribution rate for each plan. If the city were to hit or surpass the maximum, workers would be required to make additional benefit concessions to bring costs back under the cap. LJAF's analysis shows that this mechanism would provide substantial new protections for taxpayers but would also significantly increase workers' exposure to risk.The report states that the proposal's long-term impact on workers would depend on demographic trends and the plans' investment performance, two factors that would influence how often the city would hit the cap. For example, LJAF's modeling shows that there is a two in five (40 percent) chance that the city's contribution rate would hit the maximum for the police fund at least once by 2027. If the police plan were to earn less than 7 percent on its investments in the short or long term, contribution rates would hit the cap even sooner.If investment returns match the city's assumptions, there is roughly a one in three (33 percent) chance that contribution rates for members of the police plan would increase by five percentage points or more in the next decade. Given that members of the police plan—as well as members of the other plans—have already agreed to billions of dollars in concessions, McGee and Diaz Aguirre explain that the city has an obligation to uphold its end of the bargain. They state that the city should make payments on time and in full and should take steps—such as limiting investments in risky assets including real estate, private equity, and hedge funds—to protect workers.In addition, if the proposal is implemented, the report states that the city should also make good on its promise to provide a lump-sum payment to the two plans with the largest deficits—the police and municipal employees plans. The city has proposed issuing $1 billion in pension obligation bonds to cover the payments. To benefit financially, Houston would need to earn more in the market than it costs to borrow the money. Given the current market conditions, the spread between expected bond interest rates and expected returns is relatively small. Despite the fact that the bonds pose some risk, the report argues that they are a good-faith measure that reflects the city's commitment to upholding funding promises.The report concludes that, "In the short term, the proposal would place the pension plans—and the city—on firmer financial footing. The long-term impact would depend on how the changes are implemented." It also states that Houston should make further changes to establish a comprehensive, permanent solution to its pension problems. This would include creating retirement systems for new workers that are simpler and easier to manage such as a Defined Contribution plan or a Cash Balance plan.
The Laura and John Arnold Foundation;
The report, co-authored by Josh McGee, LJAF Vice President of Public Accountability, and Michelle Welch, LJAF Public Accountability Research and Policy Manager, reveals that the city of Houston owes public workers at least $3.1 billion for retirement benefits they have already earned.Houston's pension debt is now a billion dollars more than the city's total general fund revenue, and the city is at a tipping point. If political leaders don't enact real reforms, the pension debt, which is continuing to rise, will threaten the city's ability to give workers and retirees the retirement they were promised. In addition, taxpayers may be forced to pay the price through higher taxes or reduced funding for roads, infrastructure, parks, and other public services that help make Houston a great place to live and work.In the report, McGee and Welch present a range of fair and sustainable solutions that would address the growing debt and put the city's pension plans -- and the city's financial health -- back on the road to recovery.
Charles F. Kettering Foundation;
This Kettering Foundation Study reports on research conducted in a number of small rural communities struggling to deal with persistent problems that threaten their very existence. The report tells the stories of these places: Bakersville, North Carolina; Haven Acres (a neighborhood in Tupelo, Mississippi); Houston, Minnesota; and Colquitt, Georgia. And it tells the story of how citizens in these communities worked together -- one difficult step at a time -- to breathe new life into their struggling communities.
The Boston Foundation;
A new study commissioned by the Boston Foundation on how Boston and comparable cities support the arts shows that only New York City has higher per capita contributed revenue for the art than Boston, among major American cities.The study, titled "How Boston and Other American Cities Support and Sustain the Arts: Funding for Cultural Nonprofits in Boston and 10 Other Metropolitan Cities," also examined Baltimore, Chicago, Cleveland, Houston, Minneapolis-St. Paul, Philadelphia, Portland Oregon, San Francisco, and Seattle. "How Boston" is a follow-up of sorts to a 2003 Boston Foundation report titled, "Funding for Cultural Organizations in Boston and Nine Other Metropolitan Areas."Key findings of this study, regarding Boston, include the fact that Boston's arts market is quite densely populated. While Greater Boston is the nation's 10th largest metro area and ranks ninth for total Gross Domestic Product, its non-profit arts market, which consists of more than 1,500 organizations, is comparable to that of New York and San Francisco, and consistently surpasses large cities such as Houston, Chicago and Philadelphia, in terms of the number of organizations and their per capita expenses.