Munnell & Aubry: Are Counties Major Players in Public Pension Plans?

From the Introduction:

Most analyses of public pensions focus on states and cities. Less has been written about the role of counties, which are significant public service providers in some states. This brief sheds light on pension activity at the county level by documenting the costs, funded status, and unfunded liabilities to determine whether counties should regularly be included in analyses of state and local pensions.

The discussion proceeds as follows. The first section describes the nature and role of counties in the state government structure. The second section takes a closer look at states where counties administer their own pension plans as opposed to participating in state-administered plans, with a special emphasis on Maryland, Virginia, and California. The third section focuses on pension expense as a percentage of revenues for counties and compares this ratio to that of states and cities. The fourth section reports the funded status of pension plans administered by counties and reports counties’ total unfunded liabilities stemming from both their own plans and the state plans in which they participate. The final section concludes that the importance of counties varies significantly across states but, in the aggregate, counties account for only 12 percent of total unfunded pension liabilities. That said, in states such as Maryland, Virginia, and California, discussing the pension landscape without considering counties would provide a very misleading picture.

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