May 18, 2011

Interactive map helps visualize county-by-county pension payments and liabilities

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By Megan Poinski
Megan@MarylandReporter.com

While most of the focus on pension reform for public employees has been on the state as a whole, counties are also finding themselves with growing unfunded liabilities, according to a new interactive chart launched on Tuesday by the Maryland Public Policy Institute.

The pension map plots out the amount that each county and Baltimore City spent on pensions – both in benefits paid out and in the employer contribution – in the last fiscal year.

pension-map

The interactive pension map released by the Maryland Public Policy Institute.

The results are not surprising. The larger jurisdictions – led by Baltimore City – are paying more in pensions, and have larger unfunded liabilities. However, some of the smaller jurisdictions have a larger percentage of unfunded liability than some of the larger ones.

Taxpayers in Baltimore City, now the fourth largest jurisdiction in the state, put $255 million into pensions and retiree health coverage last year, compared to $167 million in Montgomery County, the state’s largest county. And the city also has the largest unfunded liability for retiree benefits, $2.7 billion, compared to $1.9 billion in Montgomery.

The numbers came from each county’s most recent comprehensive annual financial report (CAFR).

Each jurisdiction on the map has a dot that ranges from green to red that indicates how much was spent. The size of the dot indicates the size of the unfunded liability for that county.

Putting a mouse over the dots gives raw numbers on how much was spent and how large the unfunded liability is. Both amounts are also represented in bar charts at the bottom of the map.

Maryland Public Policy Institute President Christopher Summers said the problem of unfunded liabilities in both state government and the counties could bring a “fiscal tsunami,” because they are obligations that will not go away without reform.

“I thought it would be advantageous to have the taxpayer able to look and see what sort of shape (his) county is in,” Summers said.

In the bar charts on the map, the black line on the left side represents how much each jurisdiction has in its unfunded liability. Everything to the left of the line is unfunded, while everything to the right of it is properly funded.

John Walters, a research associate with the Public Policy Institute  who put together the map, said that it struck him that the counties are not necessarily heading toward catastrophe with their pension systems – even though that’s how it often appears in the media.

“This is something that if counties cut back in other areas of spending, and make the kind of tough decisions like (Gov. Martin) O’Malley is always talking about, it would solve the problems,” Walters said. “This is actually kind of doable if we make it a priority.”

Walters said that the information used for the chart is as consistent as possible, but jurisdictions organized their CAFRs differently. For more information on exactly what is included, data was loaded into spreadsheets and is available on the site for download.

Andrea Mansfield, associate director of the Maryland Association of Counties, said that the statistics are impressive, given that they were culled from often hard-to-understand CAFRs. MACo has been stressing the importance of counties budgeting to meet unfunded pension liabilities. The statistics show that some counties are dealing with it, and she knows that all of the jurisdictions are working on it to keep their systems sustainable.

“They all want to pay the benefits that they promised their employees,” Mansfield said.