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Bankrupt U.S. city to dispute debt with California pension fund

A sign advertising bankruptcy filing is seen hanging off a road sign in San Bernardino, California September 11, 2012. REUTERS/Lucy Nicholso
A sign advertising bankruptcy filing is seen hanging off a road sign in San Bernardino, California September 11, 2012. REUTERS/Lucy Nicholso

By Tim Reid

LOS ANGELES (Reuters) - Bankrupt San Bernardino, California, enters mediation with its creditors on Monday and will immediately dispute the amount the California Public Employees' Retirement System (Calpers) says the city owes in pension arrears, according to people with knowledge of the city's preparations for the talks.

In what could presage a groundbreaking showdown with America's largest public pension fund, San Bernardino officials will challenge Calpers' calculations and also seek a longer repayment term on the debt.

Calpers says that after San Bernardino halted its employer contribution to the fund for an entire year after filing for bankruptcy protection in August last year - the first time a California city has ever paid less than its full dues - its arrears stand at just under $16.5 million, plus growing interest.

City officials say it is unclear exactly how the arrears figure has been calculated. They say they owe Calpers about $13 million. City officials also want to seek as long a period as possible to repay the deficit, and block potentially onerous interest charges and other fees.

How the city plans to tackle the issue of its arrears to the pension fund, which manages $277 billion in assets, was part of a draft plan for creditors, or "term sheet," handed in October to Meredith Jury, the federal bankruptcy judge overseeing the case.

Judge Jury has ordered details of the term sheet be kept secret. San Bernardino's three days of closed-door negotiations with creditors will be mediated by Nevada bankruptcy Judge Gregg Zive, who was appointed by Judge Jury. It will also be the first time the city has had substantive negotiations with its creditors since it declared bankruptcy on August 1, 2012.

The San Bernardino case is taking a much different course than that of Stockton, another California city that filed for bankruptcy last year. Stockton has kept current on all payments to Calpers and decided not to take on the pension fund in its bankruptcy, while bondholders have agreed to accept substantially reduced repayments.

Calpers has supported Stockton's bankruptcy, but has fought San Bernardino's quest for Chapter 9 protection at every turn. In San Bernardino, the stakes are high for the pension fund because it has strenuously argued that all cities and other local entities must always pay it in full, and on time, even in a bankruptcy.

In San Bernardino's case, like the much larger bankruptcy case in Detroit, the question of whether pension benefits can be cut has become a central issue.

San Bernardino resumed paying Calpers in July, but has reneged on its debt to bondholders and other creditors since August 2012, including the holders of $50 million in pension obligation bonds.

Rosanna Westmoreland, a Calpers spokeswoman, said San Bernardino owes $16,418,628 in arrears. Until last week, Calpers had pegged the figure at $17 million.

"They are slowly paying down what they owe," Westmoreland said. She said interest was only being assessed on payments logged with Calpers to date, and that the city was behind in its payroll reports.

Calls and emails to the city and the city attorney went unanswered.

Calpers administers benefits for more than 3,000 city, state and local agencies, or nearly 3 million people. Many California cities are struggling to meet growing pension costs, which are typically by far their biggest expense.

(Editing by Jonathan Weber and Mohammad Zargham)

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