Public pension critics and independent experts say new accounting rules for state and local governments will expose retirement systems to greater scrutiny and increase the pressure to rein in soaring costs.
Pension officials and their consultants counter that the proposed national rules, which would require governments to fully disclose in one place the long-term costs of their pension plans, are not expected to have an immediate impact on public coffers.
But the rule changes could hasten overhauls by making the financial outlook for most pension plans appear even more dire in the aftermath of the 2008 market crash.
Were the standards in effect today, Sonoma County's government's unfunded pension liabilities would jump 55 percent, from $249 million to $388 million. The difference primarily reflects investment market losses, which going forward will be recognized in full each year in government statements.
For the county, that disclosure could show that its liabilities, including $515 million in pension bond debt, are $903 million, which is half the pension fund's $1.8 billion in assets.
That darker picture, seen throughout California and the country, could result in what one local government critic called a "bloodbath" over the financial burdens amassed by public employers.
"It is going to show people that the only way your county was able to say it had a balanced budget in the past was to defer millions of pension expenses into the future," said John Dickerson, a financial analyst in Mendocino County who tracks government spending issues.
Pension system officials and their consultants push back, saying that such snapshots, which can swing wildly up and down depending on the market, are a poor measure of actual costs. A better measure, they say, are the annual contributions required of taxpayers — and to a lesser degree employees — which are based on multi-year projections that smooth out gains and losses.
"The important thing to remember is that pension liability is a longer-term obligation," said Sonoma County Administrator Veronica Ferguson. "This change will make it more incumbent upon us to explain what that means."
Sonoma County's retirement system has come under scrutiny with the disclosure of pension records showing sharply escalating average pensions for newer retirees. That trend — and the two latest rounds of borrowing used to support it — has fueled a more than 300 percent rise in taxpayer costs since 2001 and restricted the county's ability to fund a range of public services.
Political interest in public pensions nationwide has drawn attention to the debate on the five-year effort by the Governmental Accounting Standards Board to overhaul pension accounting rules for state and local governments.
The stakes are high in part because similar changes decades ago in the private sector were a factor — some say a key factor — in opening up company books and heralding the widespread demise of private defined-benefit pension plans.
Government officials shrug off that comparison, saying their retirement costs long have been disclosed, even if in ways confounding to the general public. Greater scrutiny is not likely to set off a similar exodus, they said.
The accounting board is set to take public input on its recommendations at a hearing in San Francisco on Thursday. The final set of rules is due in June and would take effect for many governments starting in the 2012-2013 fiscal year.