[1/9/17] Chicago and New York rank at the bottom of a new analysis of fiscal strength based primarily on data from 2015 financial reports issued by the cities themselves. The analysis includes 116 U.S. cities with populations greater than 200,000. See the full rankings here.
Chicago’s position at the bottom of the ranking is no surprise to anyone who follows municipal finance. The Windy City has become a poster child for financial mismanagement, having suffered a series of ratings downgrades in recent years. Aside from having thin reserves and large volumes of outstanding debt, Chicago is notorious for its underfunded pension plans.
For example, the city’s Municipal Employees’ Annuity and Benefit Fund (MEABF) reported $4.7 billion in assets and $14.7 billion of actuarially accrued liabilities at the end of 2015, representing a funded ratio of just 33 percent. The actuarial calculations rely on a controversial practice of discounting future benefits at a rate of 7.5 percent, which is the assumed return on the fund’s portfolio return. If a more conservative assumption was employed, MEABF’s liabilities would be higher and its funded ratio lower.
Because the ranking is based on 2015 financial audits — you can see the full data behind the scores here — it does not take into account more recent news. Last summer, Mayor Rahm Emmanuel announced a plan to resolve MEABF underfunding by raising water and sewer rates and increasing employee contributions to the system. Because these changes don’t take effect until this year, it will take some time for them to impact Chicago’s audited financial statements and their fiscal health scores.
While Chicago’s place at the bottom of the list is unsurprising, New York City’s position — just one step above — was unexpected. An extended bull market and soaring real estate prices have pumped money into the Big Apple’s coffers. Total municipal revenues rose from $60 billion in 2009 to $81 billion in 2015. But the city has been spending the money almost as quickly as it has been coming in.
At the end of its 2015 fiscal year, the city’s general fund reserves amounted to just 0.67 percent of expenditures — well below the Government Finance Officers Association recommendation of 16.67 percent (equivalent to two months of spending). A city’s general fund is roughly analogous to an individual’s checking account.