Thursday, October 30, 2014

Judge Approves Stockton Bankruptcy Plan - Saves CalPERS Investment

In a decisive win for public employees, Judge Christopher M. Klein today ruled in favor of Stockton's bankruptcy plan of adjustment, preserving the city's contract with CalPERS. The judge noted that the bankruptcy cuts had already reduced compensation below market. Hopefully this ruling will help stabilize police recruitment and retention in Stockton which has been unable to fill vacant police positions and has experienced a loss of nearly half its veteran officers over the last 3 years.

Earlier this month, Judge Klein had ruled that bankruptcy law preempted state law barring the impairment of CalPERS pensions in bankruptcy. City officials acknowledged that if the pensions were impaired they would experience a further exodus of police officers and city employees, who would have to obtain employment in another CalPERS or reciprocal agency within six months to retain their classic employee pension status under PEPRA. Judge Klein noted that re-doing the entire pension system would be no simple task. To even compete in the labor market, the City would also have to establish a new similar pension system that might be more expensive than CalPERS.

Judge Klein also held that PERS is not the creditor that would suffer the impairment. He found that the employees would receive the pension cuts, not PERS, and that employee compensation must be considered as a whole, including pension obligations. Many Stockton employees, including the police department, had made considerable sacrifices to keep the city afloat. These sacrifices included eliminating retiree health care completely, cutting salaries for current employees by 20-30%, reducing pensions for new hires, and requiring employees to contribute to their pensions. The Judge held that these changes were the result of long, difficult negotiations between labor organizations and the city. Judge Klein held that labor agreements cannot easily be set aside and recognized the importance of those negotiations and post-bankruptcy labor agreements.

Judge Klein concluded his ruling by issuing a stern warning to other public entities considering Chapter 9 bankruptcy. As the City's attorneys fees alone totaled nearly $14 million, Judge Klein stated that the high costs exceeded expectations and present a sobering lesson why municipalities should not file for bankruptcy. The objecting creditor, Franklin Templeton's, attorney told Judge Klein:  "Obviously, we're disappointed by your ruling. We will evaluate our next steps."