In the week since Detroit became the largest U.S. city to declare bankruptcy, many commentators have speculated about what, if anything, this action means for the rest of the country. One narrative is that Detroit is sui generis - a city whose fiscal problems were long in the making, aided by broad macroeconomic forces and the city's own political dysfunction. Indeed, Detroit's previous mayor is in jail and several former officials, including a city treasurer, are under investigation for pay-to-play scandals at the city's pension funds.
Another popular story line is that Detroit provides a glimpse into the future for states and localities where politicians made unrealistic promises to public sector workers and shifted the bill on to future taxpayers. A look at local pension finances across the country provides some support for this view. By their own math, locally administered pension plans covered 72 percent of their projected liabilities in 2011. However, this funding ratio dropped to 50 percent when future obligations were treated as more certain (like contracts, as state constitutions and some courts have required) and therefore on more equal footing with present day costs.
In Detroit, state appointed Emergency Manager Kevyn Orr has calculated the city's unfunded pension liabilities at a whopping $3.5 billion. Pension costs have escalated even though the city eliminated more than 40 percent of its workforce (7,000 full time equivalent employees) over the past decade. One reason for this apparent disconnect is that pension contributions must cover both active workers and a portion of unfunded liabilities from the past. As a result, it can be very difficult for cities to get out from under a pension overhang.
Like many U.S. cities, Detroit used to be big, but now it is small. Its ratio of public sector workers to retirees has dropped from more than 3 at the end of the 1950s to less than 1 today. Moreover, the problem of declining worker-retiree ratios is not unique to Detroit. Older cities like Chicago, Pittsburgh, and Baltimore suffer from the same problem.
However, even a cursory look at pension finances suggests that demographics are not destiny. Growing cities such as Atlanta and San Jose also suffer from pension funding shortfalls. Although local elected officials have made strides in pension reforms, in the past they all too often skipped contributions or made them with borrowed funds, essentially doubling down on debts.
Shortchanging pensions creates problems, even more so for cities than states. At the local level, it is easier for residents to flee higher taxes levied to pay off legacy debts. Alternatively, new residents may demand lower home prices to compensate for assuming the costs for labor services they themselves will not consume. The result can be a downward spiral of lower tax collections, worse public services, and more severe underfunding.
How can cities get out from under a pension mess? There are no easy answers. Federal policymakers have already indicated they won't get involved. State intervention—ranging from ongoing monitoring programs to one-time borrowing with the added discipline of a control board—can help. In the end, however, there's no substitute for a thriving economy and governance structure. That's where all stakeholders in Michigan should be directing their efforts.