How Retroactive Pension Increases and Lower Investment Returns Have Blown Up Sonoma County’s Pension System

We should all care deeply about pension costs and the 400% increase in the costs over the past decade in Sonoma County. Why? Because every dollar going to over generous, retroactively enhanced pensions is taxpayer money that is not creating jobs, helping our fellow citizens, educating our children, or maintaining our roads and parks.

Most people know there is a pension problem, but don’t know how it was created or how big it is. Many, including our elected officials, don’t understand the options for making pensions sustainable again. The purpose of this paper is to answer those questions.

How Defined Benefit Plans Work

Our tax dollars provide our government employees with defined benefit retirement plans. These plans are designed so that the employer (government agency) and employee each contribute a specific percentage of payroll into the plan each year. This money is then invested by the plan administrator. Sonoma County’s plan is administered by the Sonoma County Employee Retirement Association (SCERA) the State and many other city plans are administered by CalPERS.

The plan contributions are calculated by actuaries each year with contribution levels adjusted so that when an employee retires, there will be enough money in their account to pay for their retirement. It is called a defined benefit plan, because the retiree gets a set amount each month during retirement from their account. Up until the last decade, the contribution was 5-7% of pay from the employer and 5-7% from the employee. If a fund lacks the money to pay the benefits that have already been earned, it is called the “unfunded liability” and becomes the responsibility of the employer.

Here’s an example: if an employee makes a $100,000 salary at retirement and they worked for 30 years under a 2% at 60 plan, which was common until 2004, when they reach 60 and retire they received 60% (2% x 30) of their salary ($60,000) each year during retirement. Some plans also provide an annual or optional cost of living adjustment.

The Cost of Changing From 60 to 90 Percent of Pay in Retirement

Let’s take the example above and change the formula retroactively back to the date the person was hired to 3% at 60 as was done for Sonoma County for employees retiring in 2005 and beyond. Now an employee making $100,000 per year would receive $90,000 per year (3% x 30), $30,000 per year more than what he received under the previous plan. If this person lives to 80, he would receive an additional $600,000 ($30,000 x 20) under the new plan, even without cost of living adjustments. A cost of living adjustment could add on an additional 50%. The problem is for all previous years the employee was paying into the 2% plan and now at retirement the plan does not have the money it needs to pay the employee’s 3% retirement benefits. And since he is retired, neither he nor the employer are contributing to his retirement account.

Another problem is that the new benefits lowered the retirement age and enabled employees to retire an average of 5 years earlier. Instead of retiring at an average age of 62, employees in Sonoma County started retiring at an average age of 57. This means there were 5 fewer years paying into the plan and 5 more years taking money out for a 10 year swing.

Options for Correcting the Unfunded Liability and Earlier Retirement Problem

So how do we correct the underfunding and earlier retirement problems? What SCERA did was ask their actuary to come up with what additional contribution going forward would be required to pay for the benefit increase. The answer the actuary came up with was an additional 3%. SCERA and the Board of Supervisors passed the increase. The understanding was that the employees would pay the additional 3% and therefore essentially pay for the entire cost of the increase and everyone would live happily ever after.

The only problem is, that 3% was way, way off and now instead of the employees paying for the benefit increase, the County is using our tax dollars to pay for it. Essentially taking tax revenues and putting them towards something they were never authorized to do while cutting services to try to balance the budget. The current supervisors understand this is a problem, but have not offered any solutions.

The only real way to pay for the increase, would have been for the employer and employee to contribute a lump sum amount to the account of the employee upon retirement to cover the unfunded liability. However, that was not something the employees or the County could afford to do and instead decided to amortize the additional cost over 30 years. So now the cost for pensions in Sonoma County have grown from $27 million in 2002 when the changes were enacted to $107 million in 2011, a 400% increase. And since the benefits are vested, the County is essentially stuck paying for pension benefit increases it cannot afford. And even though the County’s required contributions have grown, so has the unfunded liability of the plan. To date, Sonoma County sold has sold $600 million in pension obligation bonds with an outstanding balance of $515 million and the pension plan is still about $400 million underfunded.

The Double Whammy

The other critical aspect of a defined benefit pension is investment returns. They need to average a certain assumed rate to fund the plan. Up until the mid 80’s, funds were conservatively invested with 65% allocated to bonds and 35% to stocks, with an assumed rate of return of 5%. But that all changed in the mid 80’s when the voters approved a measure they were told would save money by allowing pension fund administrators to invest 65% of pension fund in the stock market. This change also seems to have allowed pension fund administrators the ability to increase the assumed rate of return from 5% to 8%. This new rate of return created an immediate surplus on paper for the funds and enabled employee unions to argue that since the pensions now had a surplus, the new higher benefit levels were affordable. It also had the effect of making the County guarantee an 8% versus 5% rate of return, and be obligated to pay for any investment shortfalls.

Investment income is supposed to provide 66% of the retirement benefits. In the past, poor returns over a single or a couple of years were offset by gains in other years. But with a decade of below average returns the County’s pension fund has racked up huge unfunded liabilities. For the pension funds to have achieved their 8% assumed returns, today the Dow would have to be at 29,000. Instead it just reached 13,000.

Over the past decade instead of an 8% return SCERA has only averaged 4.9%, 3% less than was assumed. CalPERS returns have been 4.5% over the past decade. And that 3% shortfall has a HUGE impact on the unfunded liability of the plan. For each 1% the plan misses the assumed rate of return, the employer, if they were to fully fund the plan each year, would need to contribute 10% of payroll to make up for the shortfall. This means a 3% decade long shortfall requires an additional 30% of salary each year over the past 10 years to be contributed to the plan. That did not happen, so the unfunded liability will be paid over the next 20-30 years with interest.

Even though we have seen Sonoma County’s contributions to the plans and debt service on the bonds increase from 7% in 2002 to 32% today, the County estimates that the pension costs over the next 10 years will double from $97 million in 2010 to $209 million in 2020.

The Combined Financial Impact of Low Investment Returns and Retroactive Increases

So how bad is it? In July of 2004, the new 3% per year benefit level for General employees became effective in Sonoma County. The chart below demonstrates the problem.

For all of the calculations, the following assumptions were used for a typical employee earning $100,000 at retirement at 60:

  • In 2005 his benefits went from 60 to 90% of salary
  • He received a 2% annual COLA in retirement
  • He was hired at 30 years of age and retired at 60 years of age
  • He lives until 80 years of age
  • 14% of his pay was contributed to the fund for years worked before the benefit increase
  • He received a 3% average annual salary increase and 1% annual merit increase (for promotions) over his 30 years of employment.

Additional Pre-Retirement Annual Contribution Required to Fund
Retroactively Increased Pension Benefit

The chart shows that the 3% additional contribution, the cost estimated by the County’s actuary to pay for the increase does not come close to providing the required funding. As the chart shows, everyone who retires the first 1 to 10 years after the 90% pension requires a substantial contribution of money the years prior to retirement to fund their plan. In Sonoma County about 1500 people have already retired under the new formula, and have ended up paying only a small percentage of the cost of the enhanced benefits, not the full cost as was agreed to when the increase was approved by the Board of Supervisors. That cost needs under the agreement to fall onto current and future employees. But if they pay the cost of their fellow employees, how will their pension fund grow?

As the chart shows, a person retiring 1 year after the increase in 2007 with a 5% average investment return over his 30 years worked would require an $850,000 contribution their final year of work. Remember, there are no more contributions after retirement. And if the investments returned 8%, the contribution required would be $270,000. But he only paid $3,000 towards it (3% x $100,000) so there is a $267,000 to $847,000 shortfall in this person’s pension account.

A person retiring 5 years after the increase in 2012 with a 5% return would require an $180,000 per year contribution, an amount 2 times his annual salary each year. If investments returned 8%, the contribution required would drop to $62,000.

A person retiring 10 years after the increase in 2017 with a 5% return a year would require a $96,000 contribution for each of the 10 years prior to his retirement (his entire salary) or $35,000 with an 8% rate of return.

As you can see, even a 3 percent change in investment returns, from 8% to 5%, created a 200% to 300% increase in the contribution required to fund the plan. And under the current rules, the County or public agency, not the employee is required to make this additional contribution. Where is this additional money coming from?

How to Fix the Problems

There are two big problems to fix. First, the County should have the power to change benefit levels going forward simply because it may be required to prevent the County from going bankrupt. The current interpretation of the law is that promised benefits cannot be reduced and when a benefit is increased, they are immediately vested. However there is a CalPERS document that states that vested benefits are the benefits that were in effect when the employee was hired creating the possibility that the retroactive part of the increase could be rolled back to the old level for future service.
Also, some legal experts argue, that in a financial emergency, public agencies can legally change benefit formulas for existing employees going forward. The argument is that it is ridiculous that a legislative body can’t make changes that will prevent the insolvency of the pension fund or the bankruptcy of the government agency.

The second problem that needs to be fixed is the County needs to find a way to reduce pension costs for people who have retired. These retirees are now receiving benefit levels they and their employer never properly funded i.e. the retroactive part of the increase. The California Constitution prohibits making a gift of public funds or wasting public funds. There is a very good argument for rescinding the retroactive benefit increase, which essentially pays a person again for work already performed and this is clearly a “gift”. Hopefully this issue will be decided by the courts though the California Supreme Court recently refused to take up the case.

In the meantime, until these legal issues are ultimately resolved, the County (and other government agencies) should be doing the following to reduce pension costs:

1) Lower or freeze all salaries. Salaries are one of the two multipliers in the pension formula and lowering or freezing them will save money today and reduce pension costs when people retire. Currently, Sonoma County with average salaries of $82,000 per year for General employees and $99,000 for Safety employees, pays salaries that are 27% higher than those of the 20 other Counties under the County Employee Retirement Laws.

2) Raise employee contributions to cover at least 50% of the total contribution, as was the practice before the benefit increases, or do what the City of Pacific Grove decided to do and have the employees pay all costs in excess of 10% of salary. Today, most public agencies, as well as Sonoma County, are paying 32% of salary for general employees and even more for Safety employees who can retire at 50 with 90% of their pay. The current employee contributions range from 8-12%.

3) The County should create a second tier for new employees that either just provides a 10% of salary contribution to a 401k plan and eliminates the defined benefit plan, or the formula for the defined benefit plan should be changed to a 2% per at 65 plan for general employees and 2% at 60 plan for Safety.

It is way past time to solve these problems. Every day the problem is not addressed, more people retire with pensions that are underfunded and the public agency/taxpayers are stuck with the bill.

All of us should be calling, writing letters and sending e-mails to our State and Local representatives telling them that we support comprehensive pension reform. We should also tell them we will not vote for any tax increases until salaries of public workers are reduced to comparable county or private sector levels and retirement benefits are reduced to sustainable levels.

To accomplish this we need to elect new representatives that understand the pension problem and have the financial expertise to understand and combat this problem. We need to elect people who will put the interests of the people who elected them ahead of the employee unions. We do not seem to have those people in office anywhere except for a few places right now.

Ken Churchill is a retired business executive and member of a small group of financial experts in Sonoma County who are working to reform the County’s pension system. He has written a comprehensive report on the County’s pension problem that documents how the crisis has occurred and what can be done to fix it. It is titled The Sonoma County Pension Crisis – How Retroactive Benefit Increases, Overly Generous Salaries, and Poor Financial Management Have Destroyed the County’s Finances.

29 replies
  1. Avatar
    Tough Love says:

    Ken, Wonderful summary of the problems and the very needed and appropriate solutions.

    I particularly liked your 1-st two paragraphs under your Heading “How to Fix the Problems”. They were dead on point.

  2. Avatar
    SkippingDog says:

    Too bad Mr. Churchill didn’t bother to read the Second DCA review of the Orange County case. He’d then understand that his suggestion about Constitutional prohibitions on “gifts” doesn’t apply to pension obligations.

    Oh well, I suppose Sonoma County will have to learn those facts the same costly way Orange County did.

  3. Avatar
    Tough Love says:

    Always counting on the Courts to save the day Skippy ?

    Will they be able to “create money” as well when your Plan comes up short?

    And what will you do when the “actives” wake up and demand that the retirees must give something up so something will remain for THEM ?

  4. Avatar
    Ken Churchill says:

    I am aware of the Orange County decision and it is too bad that the Supreme Court decided not to hear the appeal. And it is to bad the Judges get public pensions too and have a obvious conflict of interest on this issue.

    My question is, how are retroactive increases earned? And if they are not earned, they are a gift. What I am hoping for is a ruling based upon simple logic somwhere down the road.

    Also, the Sonoma County situation is different from Orange County. The MOU signed by the Supervisors and the language in all the labor contracts said that the employees were going to pay for the past service and prospective cost of the increase. So in our case, the County is using money to pay for something the employees agreed to pay for and was never authorized to be paid for out of the general fund. That, according to an attorney I talked with, could make it a gift or misuse of public funds.

  5. Avatar
    Tough Love says:

    Ken, you said …”The MOU signed by the Supervisors and the language in all the labor contracts said that the employees were going to pay for the past service and prospective cost of the increase.”

    The idea that the employEEs would pay for the full cost of the retroactive increases was flawed from the get-go. From your chart above, (taking the extreme case) the worker retiring one year from the Plan increase has an incremental cost of $270K-$850K (depending on the assumed return on assets) yet the worker promised this increase only paid $300 towards this huge cost.

    To assume that current and future “actives” really understood and INTENDED to fully pay for their their own incremental costs AS WELL AS this huge cost for this soon-to-be-retired worker is ludicrous.

    No politician with even a modicum of common sense could have concluded such. Which of course gets us back to Politicians and Unions doing what they always do …. deceive, lie to and collude to cheat the taxpayers.

  6. Avatar
    SkippingDog says:

    I believe you’ll find the legal standards for your argument on page 7 of the attached case review, Mr. Chuchill. Whether you read the case or not, be sure to look at the long line of supporting precedent that is included under its own tab.

    Tough Love – Yes, I always have placed my reliance on the law and the court’s impartial administration of same. I think it’s far more likely that the courts will continue to honor their established precedent and stare decisis than embark on some novel and untested interpretation with which you might happen to agree.

    The whole point of courts is to provide predictable outcomes based on the principles of law and justice, so my confidence level continues to be high that my own benefits are well protected, no matter how many times you may encourage others to “throw me under the bus” for their own benefits. That’s exactly why we have courts of law: to prevent such actions.

  7. Avatar
    SkippingDog says:

    Some basic review of the 1937 Retirement Act and public employee retirement law in California might also give you some insight into why your questions have already been resolved by the courts, as well as by several state legislatures, Governors, and your own Board of Supervisors who had to pass an ordinance or resolution to implement the 3@50 program in Sonoma County.

    Lots of levels of law and review involved, so your question has been asked and answered many times.

  8. Avatar
    Tough Love says:

    Skippy, I’m hardly suggesting that Taxpayers …“throw under the bus” …. “for THEIR OWN (my CAPs) benefits”

    I’m pointing out that COLLUSION and FRAUD between the Public Sector Unions and the politicians are the reason these excessive pensions were approved, and THEREFORE, it is fair and appropriate (as well as financially necessary) to substantially reduce them.

    The blogs discussions (while serving to educate the citizens) will not impact the end-game. The MATH will …. the math always governs, even more so than Court orders.

  9. Avatar
    SkippingDog says:

    If your claim that “the MATH” will always prevail were correct, we’d still be on the gold standard. Political rationality will always hold more sway than mere economic rationality because concepts like justice and fair play are not quantitative concepts.

    There has been no collusion or fraud between public sector unions, employees, or anyone else. There has been a long dialog about the appropriate value of various public goods, which continues to this day on discussion boards like these.

    There is absolutely no way to prevent any interest group or rent seeker, including public employee organizations, from supporting the election of people who are sympathetic to their desires. That is as it should be to harness the power of “factions” – as such interest groups were referred to in the Federalist Papers – by effectively placing them into direct competition with each other.

  10. Avatar
    Tough Love says:

    Quoting Skippy …”If your claim that “the MATH” will always prevail were correct, we’d still be on the gold standard. Political rationality will always hold more sway than mere economic rationality because concepts like justice and fair play are not quantitative concepts.”

    Skippy, I thought you were smarter than this … I sense fear and grasping for straws. The math ALWAYS wins in the end.

  11. Avatar
    Ken Churchill says:

    In the case of Sonoma County the increase was done completely behind closed doors in violation of Sections 31515.5 and 31516 of CERL. There was never a required actuarial study with the annual effect of the increase on the pension fund, the public was never properly notified of the increase and the numbers that were thrown out by the SCERA’s actuary were off by a factor of 10.

    The Supervisors that voted in the increase also had their pensions juiced by 50%. A complete violation of conflict-of-interest laws.

  12. Avatar
    SkippingDog says:

    Mr. Churchill – I have not idea of whether the notice requirements were or were not met, but such actions occur most often on the Consent Calendar of the voting public body. If you have clear evidence of a notice violation or the corresponding failure to have an actuarial evaluation, you should certainly devote your time, effort and personal funds to redressing such a series of events. That being said, I suspect that you will quickly find there was a staff report produced for the BOS by an enrolled actuary prior to the votes. Since pension funding wasn’t a significant concern for most people at the time, the actuary’s report was admitted to the record, the ordinance received its two required readings at posted Board meetings, and it was then passed without comment on the following consent calendar.

    That may not be the kind of public dialog you would wish, but it doesn’t qualify as a decision “conducted behind closed doors in violation of …..”

    As to your comment, TL, you’ve proven multiple times that “the Math” as you like to put it does not always “win” in the end – at least not in the way you’re suggesting here.

    Whether it is money spent on military equipment, war, territory acquisitions, public employee wages and benefits or social safety net programs, the way “the Math wins” is through payment of the obligations through higher taxes, currency inflation, or some combination of both. We’ve also had many opportunities to “grow our way out of the problem” through economic expansion, and the funny thing about those events is that absolutely nobody saw them coming at the time.

    So, contrary to your conclusions about me, I have no reason to grasp at straws or anything else. I remain optimistic about our nation and its future. We are, and remain, in much better circumstances than southern Europe, Western Europe, and even those bogey men China and Russia. If you were a student of history you’d realize that our current problems, economic or otherwise, are about average over the life of our nation and come nowhere near the real, existential challenges we’ve faced and overcome in the past.

  13. Avatar
    Tough Love says:

    Skippy, The “math” has already caught up with Greece, is nipping at the heels of Italy and Spain, and … although the politicians still have their head in the sand …. has passed the tipping point in Detroit, Illinois, and is the nearing the point of no return in California, NJ, and a few other States.

    If we’re smart, we’ll RESPECT Mr. Math (and fix this PRIMARILY via pension and OPEB formula reductions, as contribution increases alone, are rarely of material magnitude), because he ALWAYS wins.

  14. Avatar
    Tough Love says:

    Skippy, Since she says it so interestingly, I thought I would post for your reading pleasure, actuary Mary Pat Campbell’s thought’s on Illinois Pension and OPEB obligations and the likelihood of them being paid (the “math” always wins):

    “And when you’ve got state officials admitting, constitutional or not, pensions for current retirees may need to be cut just due to fiscal reality — just how likely is it that these (OPEB) benefits will actually get paid out? State judges might be able to stay cuts for a little bit, but the magic money fairy ain’t gonna appear, not even if the judges click their heels together three times.”

  15. Avatar
    john moore says:

    Sonoma County, you are Bankrupt. Get over it and get going. The city of Stockton is in bad shape, but Sonoma Co. get real. You need independent, unbiased advice. Pacific Grove Taxpayers Assn’

  16. Avatar
    john moore says:

    Also, see Govt. code, section 7507, which requires a public hearing and an actuarys’ estimate of “future costs.” W/O both, the adoption is void and there is no statute of limitation for void enactments.

  17. Avatar
    SkippingDog says:

    Okay, john moore. Be sure to tell us how well that legal theory works out in PG. Cities and counties routinely post actuarially estimated costs on retirement changes, even before 7507 was amended into its current form in 2008. Perhaps you’ve also noted the recent CSC opinion concerning ‘implied contracts,” which was part of a federal matter before the 9th Circuit?

    You guys crack me up. Why don’t you just “man up” and pay the bills you owe?

  18. Avatar
    SkippingDog says:

    TL – You keep claiming MEEP is an actuary. You never claimed she was a legal scholar or political scientist. What changed?

    Who knows what the state judges of Illinois will do? Whatever they may do, there will still be federal judges with competent jurisdiction to prevent constitutional violations of the contracts clause. That means the money to pay for the state’s pension obligations will come right off the top of any state revenues, perhaps even in preference to bonded debt.

  19. Avatar
    Tough Love says:

    Skippy said …”Who knows what the state judges of Illinois will do? Whatever they may do, there will still be federal judges with competent jurisdiction to prevent constitutional violations of the contracts clause. That means the money to pay for the state’s pension obligations will come right off the top of any state revenues, perhaps even in preference to bonded debt.”

    So I guess that means that while STATE judges cannot do so, FEDERAL judges will be able to (as Mary Pat says) … make the magic money fairy appear by clicking their heels together three times ?

  20. Avatar
    Tough Love says:


    Since you raise the “man-up” issue, why don’t YOU (and the thousands like you with similar RETROACTIVE pension increases (for which you, in legal terms, provided ZERO services or “consideration”), “man-up” and GIVE THEM UP ?

  21. Avatar
    SkippingDog says:

    Why on earth would I unilaterally give up a benefit earned through years of often dangerous service on your behalf, particularly since your own elected representatives agreed to the same contract provisions as I did. It appears to be scofflaws like yourself who are seeking a way to avoid your clear obligations by, among other suggestions you’ve made, merely ignoring the law and reneging on the obligations.

    That kind of suggestion eliminates whatever credibility you claim to possess. As to the contractual consideration provided on my part, it was substantial. You’d of course never agree, but all of the parties agreed and I performed as required. That’s how contracts work.

  22. Avatar
    john moore says:

    Skipping Dog: The way it works in Pacific Grove is that the city is also bankrupt. Why? Because it adopted 3%@50 and it could not afford it by a factor of ten. BTW, the federal constitution authorized congress to control bankruptcy and it did so.It’s called Chapter 9. For CalPERS cities that enacted 3%@50 bankruptcy is inevitable. And CalPERS doubling the cost to terminate seals the deal. You do understand that Sonoma Co. owes over a billion dollar for services already rendered. That will easily double in a decade. And then double again.

  23. Avatar
    Tough Love says:

    Skippy, You Earned it?

    So you are saying you EARNED a benefit increase associated with PRIOR service years. If you earned it, did you pay for it by going BACK IN TIME to provide an appropriate amount of extra service ?

    You are delusional if you think you “earned” a retroactive pension increase. It was nothing but an financial rape of the Taxpayers …. taxpayers who have wised up and won’t be topping up your seriously underfunded pension fund.

    Keep counting on the Courts and the money fairy ….. LOL

  24. Avatar
    SkippingDog says:

    Don’t be silly, TL. There’s no money fairy, but there are legal obligations backed by the full faith and credit of the government entities and their represented citizens – that would be you and other taxpayers who will have to pay your obligations.

    You got a free ride for most of the last two decades because of the market and your refusal to actually pay for pensions and other services you wanted as they were being accrued by the employees. That allowed you to avoid paying the real costs of the services you were receiving at the time, since the high performance of the markets allowed your elected representatives to neglect their pension payments each year, reduce your taxes, and still give you services. The bill is now coming due.

    As to Mr. Moore’s comment, Pacific Grove is certainly free to avail itself of the protections afforded by Chapter 9 of the Bankruptcy Code, if it actually qualifies for such protection. The Chapter 9 test for insolvency is whether or not a municipality can pay its current obligations, not whether there’s some big and scary number out in the future somewhere. Nobody who pays attention to Pacific Grove’s finances believes that city qualifies for such protection.

    Just remember, the courts are exactly what prevents mob rule in a democratic republic such as ours. There’s no reason to believe that is going to change, or that the Contracts Clause will suddenly become inoperable. Why? Because such a change would fundamentally change the rules for millions of people and businesses who are not public employees or retirees, rendering their legal agreements invalid as well.

    Do you really think that’s likely to happen?

  25. Avatar
    Tough Love says:

    Skippy, The more informed citizenry would say that not THEM, but YOU got a “free ride” (with the promised excessive pensions and benefits) the cost of which was carefully hidden from taxpayers via the collusion between your Unions and our politicians. But there is a good chance that that free ride of excess will be hair-cutted in the not too distant future….. because (as you agree) there is no money fairy … and the Taxpayers won’t be topping up your seriously underfunded pensions.

    And as to your assertion that … “… your refusal to actually pay for pensions and other services you wanted” …. Baloney, ALL of you have been more than fairly compensated even if your pensions were hair-cutted by 50+% and all retiree healthcare subsidies were eliminated. If fact, for many, a 1/3 drop in your pension just eliminated the outrageous retroactive SB400 increase.

    The financial rape of the taxpayers by overcompensated Public Sector workers is coming to an end.

  26. Avatar
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