Tuesday, January 18, 2011

The 'Other' Big One Awaiting California.


ScienceDaily (Jan. 18, 2011)
For emergency planning purposes, scientists unveiled a hypothetical California scenario that describes a storm that could produce up to 10 feet of rain, cause extensive flooding (in many cases overwhelming the state's flood-protection system) and result in more than $300 billion in damage.

The "ARkStorm Scenario," prepared by the U.S. Geological Survey and released at the ARkStorm Summit in Sacramento on Jan. 13-14, combines prehistoric geologic flood history in California with modern flood mapping and climate-change projections to produce a hypothetical, but plausible, scenario aimed at preparing the emergency response community for this type of hazard.

The USGS, the Federal Emergency Management Agency and the California Emergency Management Agency convened the two-day summit to engage stakeholders from across California to take action as a result of the scenario's findings, which were developed over the last two years by more than 100 scientists and experts.

"The ARkStorm scenario is a complete picture of what that storm would do to the social and economic systems of California," said Lucy Jones, chief scientist of the USGS Multi-Hazards Demonstration Project and architect of ARkStorm. "We think this event happens once every 100 or 200 years or so, which puts it in the same category as our big San Andreas earthquakes. The ARkStorm is essentially two historic storms (January 1969 and February 1986) put back to back in a scientifically plausible way. The model is not an extremely extreme event."

Jones noted that the largest damages would come from flooding -- the models estimate that almost one-fourth of the houses in California would experience some flood damage from this storm.

"The time to begin taking action is now, before a devastating natural hazard event occurs," said USGS Director, Marcia McNutt. "This scenario demonstrates firsthand how science can be the foundation to help build safer communities. The ARkStorm scenario is a scientifically vetted tool that emergency responders, elected officials and the general public can use to plan for a major catastrophic event to help prevent a hazard from becoming a disaster."

To define impacts of the ARkStorm, the USGS, in partnership with the California Geological Survey, created the first statewide landslide susceptibility maps for California that are the most detailed landslide susceptibility maps ever created. The project also resulted in the first physics-based coastal storm modeling system for analyzing severe storm impacts (predicting wave height and coastal erosion) under present-day scenarios and under various climate-change and sea-level-rise scenarios.

Because the scenario raised serious questions about existing national, state and local disaster policy and emergency management systems, ARkStorm became the theme of the 2010 Extreme Precipitation Symposium at U.C. Davis John Muir Institute of the Environment, attracting over 200 leaders in meteorology and flood management. ARkStorm is part of the efforts to create a National Real-Time Flood Mapping initiative to improve flood management nationwide. ARkStorm also provided a platform for emergency managers, meteorologists and hydrologists to work together to develop a scaling system for west coast storms.

"Cal EMA is proud to partner with the USGS in this important work to protect California from disasters," said Cal EMA Acting Secretary Mike Dayton. "In order to have the most efficient and effective plans and response capabilities, we have to have the proper science to base it on. Californians are better protected because of the scientific efforts of the United States Geological Survey."

According to FEMA Region IX Director, Nancy Ward, "The ARkStorm report will prove to be another invaluable tool in engaging the whole of our community in addressing flood emergencies in California. It is entirely possible that flood control infrastructure and mitigation efforts could be overwhelmed by the USGS ARkStorm scenario, and the report suggests ways forward to limit the damage that is sure to result."

The two-day summit included professional flood managers, emergency mangers, first responders, business continuity managers, forecasters, hydrologists and decision makers. Many of the scientists responsible for coordinating the ARkStorm scenario presented the science behind the scenario, including meteorology, forecasting, flood modeling, landslides and physical and economic impacts.

The ARkStorm Scenario is the second scenario from the USGS Multi-Hazards Demonstration Project led by Jones, which earlier created the ShakeOut earthquake scenario.
More information about the ARkStorm Summit is online(http://urbanearth.usgs.gov/arkstorm-summit/).
The ARkStorm Scenario, USGS Open-File Report 2010-1312, is also online (http://pubs.usgs.gov/of/2010/1312/)

Saturday, January 8, 2011

Bates and Kamlarz Push Berkeley into Bankruptcy.

Original column here

Daniel Borenstein: Berkeley benefit debt at least $310 million
By Daniel Borenstein as published in the Contra Costa Times.

TWO YEARS ago, as Berkeley City Council members gave City Manager Phil Kamlarz a hefty salary increase, they credited him with running a fiscally sound organization.

"We are in better fiscal shape than virtually any other jurisdiction in the Bay Area and I would suggest even California," Councilman Laurie Capitelli declared.

But a report by City Auditor Ann-Marie Hogan and new numbers from the California Public Employees' Retirement System show that the city has an unfunded liability for promised employee benefits of $310 million.

That's equal to more than two years of city general fund revenues. It works out to about $197,000 for every full-time city employee. Taxpayers must pay it off, at a cost of about $3,000 for every city resident.

The city has spent beyond its means, racking up huge debt that will be pushed onto future generations. They will be forced to choose between more taxes -- in a city that's already paying some of the highest -- and fewer services.

The biggest factors driving the debt are the city's unfunded liability for a pension plan that allows some workers to collect more in retirement than on the job; overly generous promises of health care coverage for police in retirement; and a ridiculous vacation and sick leave accrual policy that costs the city millions and enables employees to spike their pensions.

If anything, the estimates are conservative because the city's pension liability, the biggest part of the debt, is calculated by CalPERS. The state retirement agency's formulas don't yet include much of the investment losses of the past 21/2 years and make overly optimistic assumptions about future investment returns. Indeed, Berkeley's total debt might be as much as $200 million more.

As the full effect of investment losses is folded into the calculations, city benefit costs will escalate. They will also increase if the city begins to address its badly underfunded retiree health care program.

Hogan estimates those increases -- not the total annual payments, just the increases -- that are expected during the next five years will force the city to eliminate 63 full-time positions, or about 4 percent of the workforce.


Because of the mounting pension debt, the city will be forced to divert more city funds to its retirement program in future years. For every dollar the city pays in police salaries, it pays another 36 cents for pensions. That number is expected to increase to 51 cents by 2016. For firefighters, the cost is 25 cents on the dollar, expected to rise to about 44 cents in five years. And for other city workers, the cost is 24 cents on the dollar, expected to increase to 34 cents.

Part of the blame can be placed on investment losses. But the cost is driven in large part by lucrative pension benefits that allow police and firefighters to retire starting at age 50 with 3 percent of top salary for each year of work. Thus the pension for a 30-year employee starts at 90 percent of salary and has an annual cost-of-living adjustment.

Other city employees can retire at age 55 and collect about 2.92 percent of salary for every year worked. Thus, someone who worked in government for 35 years can receive a starting pension of 102 percent of salary. That's right: That employee will collect more in retirement than on the job. (Kamlarz, the city manager, is one of those workers.)

Retiree health care

The city also provides retirement health care. The program for police is exceptionally costly because the city directly pays its retired officers with 20 years' experience an amount equal to the total cost of Kaiser coverage for two people, regardless of the rising costs of health care and regardless of whether the retirees have spouses or partners. That might have been affordable two decades ago, when the deal was first negotiated, but the rapidly rising price of health care has dramatically driven up the cost of the program.

Moreover, the payments continue at the full rate even after the retired officer becomes eligible for Medicare and could obtain a much less-costly Kaiser plan.

This poorly thought-out benefit is exacerbated because the money is paid to the retirees in cash rather than directly to the health care insurer, making the payment taxable to the retiree. In essence, a large chunk of the money is wastefully lost to state and federal taxes.

While promising these health-care benefits, the city has only set aside 13 percent of the money it should have to fund it. It's like promising a pension and not putting anything into savings in advance. As a result, future generations will pay for the health care of today's workers when they retire.

Vacation and sick leave

Berkeley city employees may accrue up to 320 hours of vacation time and 1,600 hours of sick leave. Firefighters and police can accrue up to 360 hours of vacation time and have no cap on accrued sick leave.

At retirement, they can cash out all vacation time and up to 50 percent of sick leave. Or, they can apply all their unused sick leave to service credit for calculating their pensions.

For someone with 30 years' service and the full 1,600 hours of sick leave that boosts his pension by about 2.7 percent for the rest of his life.

The accruals create two problems. First, they build up a liability that must be paid in the future. In 2009, the city paid departing employees $1.47 million for unused sick leave, vacation and related benefits. Second, they drive up pension costs. Both are bad.

And both are avoidable. Vacation should be taken each year and sick leave should only be for illnesses. "Use it or lose it" policies are common in the private sector. Berkeley should do the same.

Daniel Borenstein is a Contra Costa Times staff columnist and editorial writer. Reach him at 925-943-8248 or email him at dborenstein@bayareanewsgroup.com

republished here under the fair use laws