Bloomberg News

Stockton Discourages Employee Retirement Amid Bankruptcy Review

February 28, 2012

Feb. 28 (Bloomberg) -- The city manager of Stockton, California, discouraged employees from seeking early retirement after he recommended that lawmakers start negotiations with creditors to avert bankruptcy.

It’s “not at all clear that there would be an advantage to prematurely retire,” Bob Deis said in a letter dated Feb. 24 and posted on the city’s website. He also said he was temporarily suspending payouts for unused vacation, sick time and holiday leave usually collected at retirement.

The City Council today plans to consider a type of mediation that lets creditors participate, required under a new state law as the first step toward a Chapter 9 bankruptcy filing. Deis, who urged the council to begin the process, said he’d also recommend withholding $2 million in debt payments due in March.

“Some employees may believe that if they quickly retire, they will avoid any reductions in their benefits, such as retiree health insurance or other separation payments,” Deis said in the letter. “Other than the leave buyout issue, I fully expect no impact to paychecks and benefits as we go through” the mediation process.

Stockton, a farming center about 80 miles (130 kilometers) east of San Francisco, has fought to avert bankruptcy by shrinking its payroll, including 25 percent of its workforce. The city of 292,000 has an unfunded liability of $450 million in its retiree health program and has issued $319 million in debt directly or indirectly supported by its general fund, Deis said last week.

Emergency Declaration

Deis said he was using his powers under the city’s May 2011 financial emergency declaration to temporarily suspend the retiree payouts as of the pay period that started Feb. 16.

“The city’s finances are precarious for the balance of this fiscal year,” Deis said in a separate employee letter. “Any new surprise may push us into insolvency or uncontrolled default. As a result, we are forced to implement a temporary ‘time out’ and examine our leave-payout exposure.”

Deis said city officials will develop an alternative policy.

“I am very sorry for adding to the uncertainty, but maintaining solvency and services is critical during this transition,” Deis wrote.

Fitch Ratings yesterday downgraded $252.4 million in Stockton water revenue bonds to BBB-, its lowest investment grade, from AA- or fourth-highest. The cut included $154.6 million in taxable Build America Bonds issued in 2009 that had been graded A+, fifth highest.

Moody’s Investors Service and Standard & Poor’s cut Stockton’s rating two levels below investment grade last week, to Ba2 and BB, respectively.

--Editors: Pete Young, Ted Bunker

-0- Feb/28/2012 15:16 GMT

To contact the reporter on this story: Alison Vekshin in San Francisco at avekshin@bloomberg.net

To contact the editor responsible for this story: Mark Tannenbaum at mtannen@bloomberg.net


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