Shocker! DWP’s Pension Plan is $4.8 Billion Underfunded … Ratepayers Will Pay the Bill!

LA WATCHDOG--The Department of Water and Power’s pension plan and its plan to cover Other Post-Employment Benefits (“OPEB”) have unfunded liabilities of almost $4.8 billion, an obligation that the Ratepayers will be required to fund.  

The Department of Water and Power pension plan is only 84% funded as assets of $10.3 billion are about $2 billion short of its future obligations of $12.3 billion. 

At the same time, the OPEB obligations are only 75% funded as assets of $1.75 billion are about $600 million less that its future obligations of $2.3 billion. 

Combined, DWP retirement obligations are only 83% funded, representing an unfunded liability of $2.5 billion. 

That’s the good news. 

When DWP finishes cooking the books and marks the assets to their true market value and assumes a more realistic investment rate assumption of 6.25%, the unfunded liability soars to $4.8 billion, representing an unhealthy funded ratio of 71%. 

DWP’s retirement plans are also very expensive to maintain. This year, the Department is expected to contribute $550 million to the two plans, an amount equal to over 12.5% of Department revenues and equal to almost 60% of its payroll.  The City, on the other hand, contributes less than 30% of civilian workers’ salaries to the Los Angeles City Employees’ Retirement System. 

During the last year, the unfunded liability increased by 50% ($1.6 billion) to $4.8 billion, in large part because the return on invested assets was less than 1% (0.82%), a considerable shortfall from the overly optimistic investment rate assumption of 7.5%.  At the same time, the annual contribution will increase to 60% of projected payroll, up from less than 50% the previous year. 

DWP, to its credit, has been making some progress. 

Several years ago, the Department contributed $600 million to fund a portion of its OPEB obligations, unlike the County and the State who have failed to fund any of this ever increasing liability.  As an aside, the City has been funding a portion of this obligation for almost 20 years.  

In the past year, it lowered its investment rate assumption to 7.25% even though it resulted in a higher unfunded liability and increased contributions. 

The Department and IBEW 18 also agreed to establish a new pension tier with lower benefits for employees who were hired after January 1, 2014.  This resulted in lower annual contributions as a percentage of the payroll. 

But even with these changes, DWP’s retirement plans are not sustainable as the investment returns on the stock and bond portfolios are expected to be in the range of 6% to 6.5%, lower than the targeted rate of return of 7.25%.  Furthermore, the investment rate assumption does not provide for the funding of the $4.8 billion unfunded liability which will continue to compound.  At the same time, annual benefits of this mature pension plan will exceed contributions by the Department and its employees. 

This shortfall will eventually be funded by the hard pressed Ratepayers who are already being smacked with a five year, $1 billion rate increase.  

Rather than speculate about the status of DWP’s retirement plans, the Board of Commissioners should require the Department, with the assistance of the Ratepayers Advocate and the Neighborhood Councils, to follow the recommendation of the LA 2020 Commission to establish an independent and transparent Commission on Retirement Security to review the DWP’s retirement obligations in order to promote am accurate understanding of the facts, to report on employment costs in various categories, and to develop concrete recommendations on how to achieve equilibrium on retirement costs by 2020. 

Is this too much to ask of the Garcetti appointed Commissioners?


(Jack Humphreville writes LA Watchdog for CityWatch. He is the President of the DWP Advocacy Committee and is the Budget and DWP representative for the Greater Wilshire Neighborhood Council.  He is a Neighborhood Council Budget Advocate.  Jack is affiliated with Recycler Classifieds -- www.recycler.com.  He can be reached at:  lajack@gmail.com.)