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Not so fast, indeed

Thursday, May 14, 2015 - Posted by Rich Miller

* Bloomberg plays with statistics, engages in false equivalency and jumps the gun in its story entitled “We’re not like Detroit? Not so fast”

BIG, SCARY NUMBERS: Chicago’s unfunded liability from four pension funds is $20 billion and growing, hitting every city resident with an obligation of about $7,400. Detroit’s, whose population of about 689,000 is roughly a quarter of Chicago’s, had a retirement funding gap of $3.5 billion, meaning each resident was liable for $5,100.

For one thing, Chicagoans can afford more than broke, under-educated Detroit residents…

Detroit: Median household income, 2009-2013 $26,325
Chicago: Median household income, 2009-2013 $47,270

Detroit: Persons below poverty level, percent, 2009-2013 39.3%
Chicago: Persons below poverty level, percent, 2009-2013 22.6%

Detroit: Median value of owner-occupied housing units, 2009-2013 $50,400
Chicago: Median value of owner-occupied housing units, 2009-2013 $233,200

Detroit: Bachelor’s degree or higher, percent of persons age 25+, 2009-2013 12.7%
Chicago: Bachelor’s degree or higher, percent of persons age 25+, 2009-2013 34.2%

Detroit’s economy has been Iraq-style devastated for years.

Also, that unfunded liability is longterm debt unless all employees decide to retire tomorrow, which they won’t. The city absolutely must start paying down its debts, but it doesn’t have to do that all at once. It ain’t gonna be easy, there’s much pain ahead, but the screamers need to calm the heck down a bit.

* More drivel

HOSTILE COURT: When Detroit filed for Chapter 9 in July 2013, a federal bankruptcy judge exerted his considerable powers and decreed that everyone—taxpayers, employees, bondholders and creditors alike—would get a haircut to settle the crisis. When the Illinois Supreme Court ruled on May 8, it said the state couldn’t cut pension benefits as part of a solution to restructure the state retirement system.

False equivalency. A state court is not a federal bankruptcy court. And this situation clearly hasn’t had a chance to play itself out yet. I mean, it’s been less than a week since the Supremes ruled. If you want to jump out your window, be my guest. I think you’re a fool, but go right ahead.

* Read on

POLITICAL PARALYSIS: Just as Detroit slid into bankruptcy after decades of economic and actuarial warnings, Chicago politicians have watched the train wreck rumble toward them for more than a decade. During that time, they skipped pension payments and paid scant attention to the financial damage being done. In 10 years starting in 2002, the city increased its bonded debt by 84 percent, according to the Civic Federation, which tracks city finances. That added more than $1,300 to the tab of every Chicago resident.

There’s no doubt that Chicago has been paralyzed with the tax fear and that Daley and Emanuel over-borrowed. There’s also no doubt that Detroit’s economic problems have been far, far worse than Chicago’s. They couldn’t even afford to buy firefighters any equipment. The place had been a bombed-out ruin forever before it declared bankruptcy.

* Onward

NO BAILOUT: Detroit’s bankruptcy filing allowed it to restructure its debt, officially snuffing out $7 billion of it by cutting pensions and payments to creditors. In Illinois, the nation’s lowest-rated state, with unfunded pension obligations of $111 billion, Rauner had a blunt message last week in an unprecedented address to Chicago’s City Council: The city will get no state bailout.

It’s simply too early to tell if Gov. Rauner’s threat is real. We’ll probably know in a few weeks. There’s a whole lot of horse-trading ahead.

* Downward

DENIAL: After years of denial, Detroit officials finally, if grudgingly, agreed to major surgery. At least for now, Chicago’s Emanuel is sticking to his view that the Illinois Supreme Court’s rejection of a state pension reform law doesn’t apply to the city. “That reform is not affected by today’s ruling, as we believe our plan fully complies with the State constitution because it fundamentally preserves and protects worker pensions,” he said in a statement on May 8.

Again, we need to let it play out a bit before rushing to screaming judgements.

* I want to make it crystal clear that I’m not attempting to downplay Chicago’s very real, very serious, even dire problems. The city is in a world of bigtime hurt. But it’s a Tier One city, not some backwater dumping ground. People have been saying Chicago would become another Detroit since at least the days when Harold Washington first ran for mayor. Know what happened? He raised taxes after years of avoidance by Richard J. Daley and his machine successors and the city eventually took off like a rocket. Emanuel tried to follow the Daley path after succeeding yet another Daley. It’s a failed strategy, and it has truly endangered the city’s fiscal and economic health. Taxes will have to rise so much that some people will leave. But it’s gonna take a whole lot more than that to make Chicago into Detroit.

* Meanwhile

Even before the triple-whammy to Chicago’s finances, Gov. Bruce Rauner was using the b-word, as in bankruptcy, particularly for CPS. That’s a status from which Detroit recently emerged.

Emanuel said Wednesday it would be “irresponsible and reckless to do that” as a first option. But, for the first time, he did not entirely rule out the possibility of bankruptcy. That would free the city and CPS to do things it would not otherwise be permitted to do while unions would lose their leverage.

“It exists. It can happen. [But] rushing there means you haven’t gone to your partners in labor and said, `Do you want to be part of the solution?’ ” Emanuel said.

Pressed on whether a post-election property tax increase was inevitable to solve the combined, $30 billion pension crisis at the city and the public schools, Emanuel insisted once again that raising property taxes was the “last option, not the first option.”

He maintained that the jackpot of revenue from a city-owned Chicago casino would be enough to save police and fire pension funds and that an end to the “double-taxation” of city residents for teacher pensions in Chicago and across the state would go a long way toward solving the $9.5 billion pension liability at CPS.

If the General Assembly and the governor can’t help sort this mess out, then it’s time to start worrying. Otherwise, we need some clear, calm heads around here for a change.

…Adding… It’s gonna play out over time

A lawsuit by unions and retirees challenging Mayor Rahm Emanuel’s changes to city pension funds ultimately will be decided by the Illinois Supreme Court when all is said and done, a Cook County judge said Wednesday.

To that end, Associate Judge Rita Novak set a July 9 hearing in the lawsuit centering on a state law the mayor pushed through to cut costs in an attempt to shore up the city laborers and municipal workers pension funds.

* Related…

* A Tale of Two Cities

       

45 Comments
  1. - Anon. - Thursday, May 14, 15 @ 10:59 am:

    Regarding the ILSC decision on the pension clause, the Detroit retirees raised the issue in a court as to whether Detroit’s bankruptcy filing was prohibited by Michgian’s pension clause. I believe the argument was made in bankrupcty court, but it may have been in a separately filed suit, but in any case, it was rejected.


  2. - vise77 - Thursday, May 14, 15 @ 11:00 am:

    Thanks yet again Rich for showing the obvious reasons why Chicago and Detroit are in different situations. Sometimes people desire so much to learn too much from history–that is, take the most superficial and facile lessons from what has come before (as in, everything is Munich 1938 again, and everything is Detroit redux.) Maddens this history nerd to no end. That matters because to solve the problem one must first accurately fix the problem, not disguise it as another problem.

    As always, great work. Thank you.


  3. - MrJM - Thursday, May 14, 15 @ 11:02 am:

    Kent Brockman: Professor, without knowing precisely what the danger is, would you say it’s time for our viewers to crack each other’s heads open and feast on the goo inside?
    Professor: Yes I would, Kent.

    – MrJM


  4. - Wordslinger - Thursday, May 14, 15 @ 11:06 am:

    Orange County, CA, is a much more relevant comparison than Detroit.

    Detroit government’s fiscal deteoriation was largely caused by a decades-long contraction of the city’s unique and historic role in the global economy. Couldn’t last, unless you were going to keep bombing Japan and Germany, (and the rest of the planet from making cars).

    Orange County government’s fiscal condition was largely caused by the reckless and incompetent fiscal stewardship of its elected officials.

    For some reason, some people cannot distinguish between economy and government finance.

    You can have sound government finance in a small, depressed economy. You can have messed-up government finance in a large, robust economy.

    They are not the same things.


  5. - nixit71 - Thursday, May 14, 15 @ 11:07 am:

    Chicago has been held up financially for years by 2 people…Chad and Trixie. We’ll soon find out how much more taxes everyone’s favorite North Side couple is willing to absorb for the benefit of the city.


  6. - Gooner - Thursday, May 14, 15 @ 11:08 am:

    First, as a Chicago resident, other than imposing fairness when it comes to teacher pensions, I’m not looking for anything from the state. I don’t see Chicago asking for a bailout from Springfield. It was Mayor Daley and not anybody in Springfield who kept our property taxes artificially low. We elected people who got us into this mess, and now we need to get ourselves out.

    That being said, it seems that our Gov. really does want Chicago to go BK. He doesn’t care about the impact on Chicago residents, as long as he can do damage to unions. It seems that the only issue of any kind that Rauner believes in is “destroy unions.” A lot of us wondered why somebody would dump $50 million into a race. Well, it looks like he saw that as the price to destroy unions.

    It is unfortunate that our Gov. cares about one issue and not about the well being of the state.


  7. - walker - Thursday, May 14, 15 @ 11:10 am:

    Rich: Just hope this is the last time you have to waste your time blasting this false comparison.

    “Detroit” has become a trigger word for me to skip the rest of any comment.


  8. - RNUG - Thursday, May 14, 15 @ 11:15 am:

    == Also, that unfunded liability is longterm debt unless all employees decide to retire tomorrow, which they won’t. ==

    Unless they are forced out by a hostile work environment …


  9. - walker - Thursday, May 14, 15 @ 11:15 am:

    Thanks to Wordslinger for a slap to the back of our heads.

    Is Jethro Gibbs really dead? NCIS is calling Word.


  10. - RNUG - Thursday, May 14, 15 @ 11:16 am:

    == The city will get no state bailout. ==

    I’m betting on a bailout as part of a tax deal.


  11. - Sunshine - Thursday, May 14, 15 @ 11:17 am:

    Chicago is hugely diverse, much more so than Detroit.

    I don’t pretend to know the solution to the financial problems of the State, or Chicago, but whatever the solution, it will mean union participation and increases in revenue. Rather than tax increases as a first option, I would prefer casinos in Chicago…before Havana, Cuba opens the flood gates.


  12. - mcb - Thursday, May 14, 15 @ 11:17 am:

    agree with Wordslinger.


  13. - RNUG - Thursday, May 14, 15 @ 11:22 am:

    == Emanuel insisted once again that raising property taxes was the “last option, not the first option.” ==

    No, if allowed by the state (unlikely), bankruptcy is the last option. Financially, cutting waste and increasing revenue is one of the FIRST options. It’s only last POLITICALLY.


  14. - RNUG - Thursday, May 14, 15 @ 11:24 am:

    == end to the “double-taxation” of city residents for teacher pensions in Chicago and across the state ==

    That’s what Chicago opted for when they asked to have their own separate pension system for CPS


  15. - Under Further Review - Thursday, May 14, 15 @ 11:26 am:

    “Emanuel tried to follow the Daley path after succeeding yet another Daley. It’s a failed strategy…”

    Totally agree. This is why I rate Emanuel’s first term as a wasted opportunity. I do not believe that the necessary fixes could have been implemented in one mayoral term, but Emanuel should have realized that the lifeboat was sinking and begun bailing out water much sooner.


  16. - Anon - Thursday, May 14, 15 @ 11:28 am:

    Does anyone know — legally speaking — whether the City of Chicago has to power, under the State Constitution and statutes, to declare bankruptcy. I would appreciate a detailed response. Thanks.


  17. - RNUG - Thursday, May 14, 15 @ 11:37 am:

    == whether the City of Chicago has to power, under the State Constitution and statutes, to declare bankruptcy. ==

    I believe under current law they would have to ask the State (General Assembly?) for permission.


  18. - From the 'Dale to HP - Thursday, May 14, 15 @ 11:41 am:

    “Emanuel tried to follow the Daley path after succeeding yet another Daley. It’s a failed strategy…”

    Amen. Rahm likes to think he’s a leader, the guy that makes tough choices. Nothing could be further from the truth. And he’s continued his poor leadership even after this reelection. Time to lead, not continue to run and hide behind press releases.


  19. - corvax - Thursday, May 14, 15 @ 11:44 am:

    yeah, well, at least we got Miguel Cabrera


  20. - Liberty - Thursday, May 14, 15 @ 11:44 am:

    If Illinois passes a bankruptcy bill for Chicago without an exemption for pensions, expect a lawsuit charging the bill violates the constitution. It will go down differently than in Michigan where the legislature put all the power int he hands of bankruptcy manager.


  21. - Arizona Bob - Thursday, May 14, 15 @ 11:48 am:

    For the time being at least, I agree that Chicago is “not Detroit”. What really worries me, though, is that I see no change in the culture that brought about this mess in city Hall.

    For decades the “culture” ran on pretty simple rules; you kept political power by handing out public jobs for campaign workers and family voters, you started out giving them great benefits because it was affordable with the lower than average salaries, but that all ended when unions successfully increased salaries to rough parity with the private sector. You gave out overpriced, and largely unnecessary, contracts based on clout (remember the Duffs?)and they took care of you with donations. You handed out millions every year in grants to “the community” which sometimes did some good, but all too often was just used for “walking around money” for many campaign supporters. checks and balances for these grants were purposely left “loose”. You kept the bungalow folks insulated from these costs by keeping property tax rates low, and borrowing instead of properly funding this system when the costs of political patronage exceeded revenues.

    CPS became a clustertuck in cost and performance, except for a few “shining lights” in the magnet schools that kept CPS looking better than it was.

    Now Chicago can’t afford the “machine” anymore without taking a hit for increasing revenues form Chicago voters, who proportionately pay far lower rates than suburbs. As Rich pointed out, the money is there in the people to address these financial issues, all that is lacking is the will.

    Everything hinges on the Mayor and City Council being willing to forego the insider deals and patronage that’s kept them in power these decades, and convince the taxpayers that they’re taking a tax hit to save the city, not just preserve a corrupt, self serving bureaucracy.

    Someone has to lead that charge for things to get fixed. I just don’t see any Chicago leader taking the mantle to move in that direction. When someone does, then maybe that will get Chiraq off the “Road to Detroit”.


  22. - Wordslinger - Thursday, May 14, 15 @ 11:50 am:

    The decision to file for bankruptcy is easy for some in the business world (I can think of one former businessman, in particular) because it can be done in relative anonymity. And, it can be personally profitable for the unscrupulous (same former businessman).

    A city, though? You think Rahm Emanuel would put his name in the history books for taking Chicago into bankruptcy? I can’t imagine his ego would allow himself to be associated with such utter failure of imagination and will.


  23. - JackD - Thursday, May 14, 15 @ 11:50 am:

    Rahm’s argument that the city pays twice for teachers’ pensions has always lacked a response to the counterargument that in exchange the city schools receive significantly more state financial aid than do non city school districts.


  24. - mcb - Thursday, May 14, 15 @ 11:57 am:

    While I agree that the Detroit Chicago comparison isn’t really valid, it could be said that governmental policy WAS the reason behind Detroit’s failure. Remember that those auto factory jobs weren’t really headed overseas, they were headed to the American Southeast. Not too many Japanese car models sold here are made in Japan, they’re made in the Southeast. Why did the factories move? They went to states that were perceived to be more business friendly.

    The reason Detroit is a poor comparison though is that it was historically much more reliant on manufacturing jobs, and wasn’t very successful in shifting to a more white collar economy. Whereas Chicago has become much more white collar, especially in the financial sector.

    But we start talking about big taxes on hedge funds and things like that, we could see a shift of jobs out just like Detroit did.

    So while the comparison isn’t valid now, it could be at some point.


  25. - Sue - Thursday, May 14, 15 @ 12:03 pm:

    Could someone ask Rahm how is it that those of us in the suburbs who have a line items on our real estate bills for school and municipal pensions but also pay state income tax are not being “double taxed”. The city,s argument is total BS since the Mayor always seems to overlook the overpayment Springfield sends Chicago for school funding which on a per pupil basis dwarfs what every other school district statewide receives-Rahm stop the whining


  26. - A guy - Thursday, May 14, 15 @ 12:05 pm:

    ===RNUG - Thursday, May 14, 15 @ 11:24 am:

    == end to the “double-taxation” of city residents for teacher pensions in Chicago and across the state ==

    That’s what Chicago opted for when they asked to have their own separate pension system for CPS===

    Thank you for reiterating this. Quite the show it was back then. Ugh.


  27. - William - Thursday, May 14, 15 @ 12:06 pm:

    So now Bloomberg is wrong. Classic.


  28. - Wordslinger - Thursday, May 14, 15 @ 12:12 pm:

    MCB, any hedgies live in NYC, Jersey or California, you think?

    Dude, David Koch chooses to live in Manhattan. It ain’t for the low taxes.


  29. - Emily Booth - Thursday, May 14, 15 @ 12:22 pm:

    There are parts of Chicago that look just like Detroit. Certainly, the poverty & violence in these areas parallel Detroit’s. But, our economy has always been more robust. No, we are suffering from very bad financial decisions at the city and state levels and weak leadership. Rahm is going to get his casino. At least, Quinn said no.


  30. - Steve - Thursday, May 14, 15 @ 12:43 pm:

    The Detroit comparison isn’t perfect but… it’s not completely wrong. Chicago only Detroit were the only big cities in the top 20 , in the 2010 Census that lost population. Chicago and Detroit have been one political party towns with little accountability. Chicago and Detroit are high cost union towns. Chicago has a bigger , wealthier tax base which is much more diverse but debt for per capita is high. Just a reminder ,Moody’s downgraded Chicago when interest rates are at an all time low. The S&P 500 is near an all time high and nationally the economy isn’t in a recession. What’s going to happen to Chicago when the next recession occurs? Tax revenues will go down. If you are a vendor extending credit to Chicago should you have worries like a Detroit vendor???


  31. - Name/Nickname/Anon - Thursday, May 14, 15 @ 12:47 pm:

    Chicago Teachers pension fund was established in 1895 (it may even predate TRS?), so I’m not sure if Chicago “asked for it”, but you can’t blame that on any recent administration.

    http://www.ctpf.org/general_info/Governance.htm


  32. - Angry Republican - Thursday, May 14, 15 @ 12:52 pm:

    Rich, you left out a few other significant statistics. The state of IL has the 5th largest economy in the US, Michigan is ranked 13th and about 40% smaller. The Chicago metropolitan area has the third largest economy in the US, Detroit is 13th. In simple terms the economy of Chicago and IL is much bigger than Detroit and Michigan, as is the city and states ability to pay debt.

    Another important statistic for everyone that thinks bankruptcy will somehow solve the debt problem, is the Detroit pensions were pretty much untouched; the haircut was about 6%. All other creditors bore the brunt of the settlement.

    The debt problems are solvable financially, the politics on the other hand are much more difficult


  33. - RNUG - Thursday, May 14, 15 @ 12:55 pm:

    So at what point did the State take over responsibility / start paying the employer portion of the CPS pension contribution? And then why did the State change the school formula to increase total revenue to CPS when they stopped responsibility / paying the employer contribution sometime in, I think, the later 60’s or early 70’s? I’m trying to understand how all this evolved …


  34. - Steve - Thursday, May 14, 15 @ 1:05 pm:

    If Rauner can’t convince the legislature to change the Chapter 9 bankruptcy law , Chicago will not be declaring bankruptcy because it will not be able to being that it has over 25,000 people. However, that would just mean creditors might not get paid on time. Many Illinois vendors dealing with the state understand this situation. So, Chicago infrastructure might not get fixed on time. Chicago might become “the check is in the mail” town.


  35. - Arsenal - Thursday, May 14, 15 @ 1:10 pm:

    “Oh, sure, Chicago isn’t Detroit, but if the policy positions I advocate for rain or shine aren’t adopted, it might become Detroit in the future, maybe?”


  36. - vise77 - Thursday, May 14, 15 @ 1:26 pm:

    “There are parts of Chicago that look just like Detroit. ”

    There are parts of most US cities that “look just like Detroit.”


  37. - Steve - Thursday, May 14, 15 @ 1:29 pm:

    - Arsenal -

    In the 2010 Census , Chicago lost 6.9% of its’ population. Who’s to say it will not lose another 5% of its’ population by the next census ? You have to admit it could happen. The policies that Chicago’s been advocating for decades just aren’t viable anymore. Having a town run by unions is too expensive for taxpayers.


  38. - Arizona Bob - Thursday, May 14, 15 @ 1:30 pm:

    mcb. a lot of the auto job exodus from Detroit was due to the politics of Detroit. When things got so bad there that the workers wanted to leave the city and the taxes made doing business there unviable, they knew they’d have to leave. Once they made the decision to leave, the lower labor costs and union militancy in the Southeast often made that the best choice.

    If things weren’t so bad that the initial move had to be made, perhaps many of the businesses wouldn’t have made the jump due to the high cost of relocation.


  39. - Gooner - Thursday, May 14, 15 @ 1:32 pm:

    Steve,

    “Too expensive for taxpayers”?

    You don’t live here, do you?

    If you did, you would get that for the past 20 years at least, our property taxes have been significantly lower than in surrounding areas.

    You don’t like unions. We get that. However, your dislike for unions does not give you license to make stuff up to back your position.


  40. - Gooner - Thursday, May 14, 15 @ 1:36 pm:

    Steve talks about population loss.

    Steve, you may want to look at some more recent numbers. People are now moving here. http://www.chicagobusiness.com/article/20140912/BLOGS02/140919953/chicago-takes-top-spot-on-move-in-list-believe-it-or-not

    In fact, Chicago leads the country in corporate relocations.

    Steve, you can choose your own opinions, but it would be helpful if you would use actual facts.


  41. - Gooner - Thursday, May 14, 15 @ 1:38 pm:

    Steve is right. Things are horrible here. /snark/

    http://abc7chicago.com/news/chicago-named-top-metro-for-corporate-relocation-expansion/541859/


  42. - Rod - Thursday, May 14, 15 @ 2:18 pm:

    Gooner as a Chicago home owner I agree with you that for years our property taxes were artificially reduced, particularly for education proposes. But I don’t agree Chicago can fix the problem by its self completely.

    The City will need to increase property taxes in a structured manner that citizens can absorb until we reach somewhere around the average rates in Cook County. The City, CPS, Park District, etc may require bridge loans to stay functional while these tax rates are increased.

    Something like the Municipal Assistance Corporation (MAC) for NYC will have to be created for Chicago. As I said before its not a pretty picture for my 1888 home with a market value over $600,000, but I can’t say I didn’t see this coming.


  43. - mcb - Thursday, May 14, 15 @ 2:28 pm:

    Wordslinger, I’m not saying a hedge fund tax will push them all out, to quote my earlier post, “big taxes on hedge funds and things like that” Things like that being as important. I’m saying it’s possible to create an environment hostile to the financial sector, much like what happened with Detroit and the auto industry.

    You can deny the connection between policy in Detroit and auto industry job losses, but it doesn’t make it any less true. They proved it there. Yes some of it was due to automation and things like that, but several other states saw auto industry job numbers rise while Detroit dropped.

    My main point was agreeing with you that the comparison between the cities was poor. I also agree that Orange Co is a better comparo.

    I just added a footnote that it’s not out of the question that the comparison to Detroit could become valid through governmental policy.


  44. - Norseman - Thursday, May 14, 15 @ 2:32 pm:

    Can I appeal the decision not to place Detroit on the banned word list? If it was banned, we could be amused by all the fire-eaters’ sad attempt to make an argument about Chicago’s dire economic situation without using this word crutch.


  45. - walker - Thursday, May 14, 15 @ 2:38 pm:

    Rod: NYC-style MAC bonds were a low-cost, government-backed, lifeboat during very tough times, but the structural changes and tax increases still had to be made to have ongoing fiscal health. New York had a City income tax, and giant financial companies all in, supporting the city.

    How much will our Civies and other big companies help carry our fair city to calmer waters? I am afraid the commonly-held values of “good corporate citizen” have since disappeared.


Sorry, comments for this post are now closed.


* Isabel’s afternoon roundup
* Despite reported shortage, state claims city has not requested diapers for migrant babies since October
* IVF debate takes a weird political turn
* ComEd Four sentencing will be delayed
* It’s just a bill
* Open thread
* *** UPDATED x1 *** Isabel’s morning briefing
* Live coverage
* Yesterday's stories

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