Truth in Accounting has released a new analysis of the 10 most populous U.S. cities that includes their largest underlying government units. With the exception of New York City, most municipalities do not include in their annual financial reports the finances of large, underlying government units for which city taxpayers are also responsible, such as school districts, and transit and housing authorities.
This report takes into account these underlying government entities and provides residents and taxpayers in these cities with a more accurate and holistic view of their respective city’s finances. We only include underlying entities that city governments claim responsibility for in their annual financial reports. These underlying governments are essentially subsidiaries of the city and the majority of their debt falls on all city taxpayers. When the unfunded debt of these underlying government units is combined with the county, municipal, and state debt, city taxpayers are on the hook for much more than they think.
Workers’ retirement security has declined in an alarming number of Illinois cities. In 2003, just 21 of 175 cities analyzed had less than 60 cents on hand for every dollar they needed to fund future benefits of their city workers. By 2019, 99 of the 175 cities were below 60 percent funded. A 60 percent funding level is often seen as a point of no return from which pension funds can’t recover.
City taxpayers have increasingly paid more to pensions over the past 16 years, and yet the pension shortfalls they are on the hook for are far larger today. Pension contributions of the 175 cities have nearly quadrupled to $960 million in 2019 from $250 million in 2003, and yet local pension shortfalls still tripled to $11.8 billion, up from $3.4 billion in 2003.
Pension costs as a share of city budgets have doubled, crowding out spending on core government services. City pension contributions as a share of general budgets have doubled to 17 percent in 2019 from 8 percent in 2003.
Most local pension funds have turned upside down – they now have more retirees drawing benefits than active workers contributing. In 2003, only 15 cities had more pensioners drawing benefits than active workers making contributions into the fund. In 2019, that number rose to 112 cities.
Between August and mid-December of 2020, at least one-quarter of large bond issuances in the municipal market involved some form of deficit financing, according to an analysis by Municipal Market Analytics (MMA). The firm analyzed 442 municipal bond issuances that totaled at least $100 million.
MMA’s Matt Fabian and Lisa Washburn added that their tally was conservative and that as many as half of those 442 issuances may have involved deficit financing because the ultimate use of the money wasn’t always clear.
“These are not typical uses of the municipal bond market, where an overwhelming majority of financing is for long-term infrastructure projects,” they told the Pew Charitable Trusts. “But last year, with state and local governments seeking as much as possible to avoid cutting spending, raising taxes, or postponing pension payments, they shifted their emphasis to short-term and temporary solutions. As the pandemic continued and federal stimulus money dried up, they increasingly took on debt for budgetary help.”