I have been following this year’s city council race in Healdsburg. The town has a sales tax increase, Measure V on this year’s ballot which will raise about one million dollars which current city council member have said will go toward public safety, street maintenance, economic development activities and general repairs and maintenance to city facilities. Two of the council members running for reelection are Gary Plass and Susan Jones both retired public employees.
Everyone knows we need a strong tax base to ensure public safety and a smooth running local, county and state government which provides for both business growth and a good quality of life. What bothers me about agreeing to a tax increases is that I don’t feel enough has been done to get rid of the waste in government. Once redevelopment funds dried up it became obvious that city and county government had been using these funds to expand government growth whether it was needed or not. A recent CBS report which showed Caltrans administrators using state rented pick-up trucks to shop for wine and clothes at Nordstrom’s during business hours and then being stonewalled by Caltrans management continues to erode voter trust.
Back in 2002 the Board of Supervisors enacted measures that have now increased pension costs by over 400 percent. The 2012 Sonoma County Grand Jury concluded that these pension increases were approved in a manner that did not comply with the law in an obvious attempt to dupe voters. In a September 2012 Santa Rosa Press Democrat article on the subject Brett Wilkinson wrote “Zane and other county leaders, nevertheless, were unified in defending the legality of the enhanced pensions. Trying to roll them back would be a costly lost cause, officials said, so the county will continue to pursue changes through legislation and collective bargaining.” I think a jury might think otherwise.
Most newly enacted pension reforms pertain to new hires in a so called “second-tier” reform. As far as I know nothing has been done to reduce the spiked pensions of current retirees who continue to collect lifetime pay increases because they were allowed to roll in their vacation, sick and car allowance pay into their lifetime retirement benefits.
I really don’t blame the public worker rank and file for this. In fact, as the LA Times columnist Steve Lopez recently said (Don’t Blame the State’s Teachers 10/28/12) “As a group (private sector workers), we’re torn between envy and anger, faced with uncertain financial futures while we pay for the comfy retirements of government retirees.” A friend has joked, “Where were we when this gravy train was went by?” Not wanting to be hypocritical I know that if I were a public employee and was offered the same spiking opportunities I would have taken it them too. But this isn’t about blame it’s about correcting a wrong.
Because of, the thinking went at the time, lower pay for government employees should be offset by taxpayer retirement guarantees. That was all well and good until the tide went out on the private sector and exposed the rotten under pinning of the public sector. Again, I don’t blame the public sector workers I think the whole immoral practice of pension spiking was a result of union shenanigans due to their unrestricted power over our state legislators. This is what gave rise to this year’s Prop. 32. This country’s oligarchs saw a chance to deceptively crush the state’s unions. This is frightening thought but the unions have no one to blame but themselves for this challenge.
Power corrupts and absolute power corrupts absolutely. I’m not saying that what the Board of Supervisors did in 2002 is the same as what went on in Bell, CA but it came from the same “look how well the private sector is doing – we deserve this” mentality. It was a culture of total contempt for the people who trusted them.
I don’t know if anyone has looked at what the saving would be if all currently retired public employees had their current retirement pay rolled back to what it would be if their retirement benefits hadn’t been spiked. I’m not suggesting reducing their base pay but just cutting off what was unfairly gained. Maybe if an actuary were to exam this it could be a substantial savings on the local, county and state budgets without reducing the retirement pay that the retirees agreed to when working. If the retiree has already collected what would have been a lump sum payment at retirement the overage should be cut off. If we just wait around for runaway inflation to bail us out the liability is just going to get bigger. There is nothing “grey” about insider trading and conflicts of Interest and there should be nothing grey about gaming a system of public trust.
This brings us back to our little burg north of Santa Rosa. Council members Gary Plass and Susan Jones are good people who care a great deal about our town. However, as retired public employees and the city facing a $26 million dollar unfunded pension liability I think their conflict of interest is just too great to ignore. One can’t help but wonder if they are supporting Measure V to help Healdsburg or to protect their retirement pay. If you have to rebuild the chicken coop you don’t want a fox designing the blueprint?Read More