Chicago and New York City at Lowest Fiscal Strength Among Large US Cities


Chicago and New York rank at the bottom of a new analysis of fiscal strength based primarily on data from 2015 financial reports issued by the cities themselves. The analysis includes 116 U.S. cities with populations greater than 200,000. See the full rankings here.

Chicago’s position at the bottom of the ranking is no surprise to anyone who follows municipal finance. The Windy City has become a poster child for financial mismanagement, having suffered a series of ratings downgrades in recent years. Aside from having thin reserves and large volumes of outstanding debt, Chicago is notorious for its underfunded pension plans.

For example, the city’s Municipal Employees’ Annuity and Benefit Fund (MEABF) reported $4.7 billion in assets and $14.7 billion of actuarially accrued liabilities at the end of 2015, representing a funded ratio of just 33 percent. The actuarial calculations rely on a controversial practice of discounting future benefits at a rate of 7.5 percent, which is the assumed return on the fund’s portfolio return. If a more conservative assumption was employed, MEABF’s liabilities would be higher and its funded ratio lower.

Because the ranking is based on 2015 financial audits — you can see the full data behind the scores here — it does not take into account more recent news. Last summer, Mayor Rahm Emmanuel announced a plan to resolve MEABF underfunding by raising water and sewer rates and increasing employee contributions to the system. Because these changes don’t take effect until this year, it will take some time for them to impact Chicago’s audited financial statements and their fiscal health scores.

While Chicago’s place at the bottom of the list is unsurprising, New York City’s position — just one step above — was unexpected. An extended bull market and soaring real estate prices have pumped money into the Big Apple’s coffers. Total municipal revenues rose from $60 billion in 2009 to $81 billion in 2015. But the city has been spending the money almost as quickly as it has been coming in.

At the end of its 2015 fiscal year, the city’s general fund reserves amounted to just 0.67 percent of expenditures — well below the Government Finance Officers Association recommendation of 16.67 percent (equivalent to two months of spending). A city’s general fund is roughly analogous to an individual’s checking account.

New York City also carries a very heavy debt burden. According to a report issued by City Comptroller Scott Stringer, New York’s per capita debt greatly exceeds that of all other large U.S. cities, and is even 50 percent higher than that of Chicago. But the comptroller’s report only focuses on bonded debt. Government financial accounting standards require cities to report other long-term obligations such as pensions, compensated absences for municipal employees (accrued sick and vacation leave payable at retirement) and “other post-employment benefits” (or OPEB).

It is New York’s OPEB obligation that really sets the Big Apple apart. In 2015, the city’s OPEB liability was $85 billion — roughly equivalent to its bonded debt.

The large OPEB liability is driven by the size of the city’s workforce and the relatively high cost of health care in New York. According to its most recent OPEB Actuarial Report, the city is providing retiree health benefits to 222,000 retirees, while another 315,000 current and separated employees are potentially eligible for future benefits. In 2015, benefits per retiree ranged as high as $17,000 a year (for workers who were not yet Medicare-eligible and who had eligible dependents).

High debt burdens and insufficient general fund reserves are associated with episodes of fiscal distress, which are marked by employee furloughs, layoffs and, in extreme cases, bond defaults and bankruptcy filings. Still, if New York City continues to record strong revenue growth, it can shoulder its sizeable obligations. With the stock market perking up in the aftermath of Donald Trump’s election victory, the odds of a fiscal crisis in the near term appear long — but a bear market could place the city in jeopardy.

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Source: Fiscal Times