By Russell Buckley
March 31, 2011 (La Mesa)--"Today's benefit structure for public employees is unrecognizable from the design, funding structure and goals of the original 1932 version. Instead of retirement security, the public pension became a wealth generator. Initially, state workers retiring at age 65 could expect retirement income at roughly half of their final compensation, based on an average salary earned during their last five years of employment. The retirement formulas and benefits began ratcheting up in the 1940's and never stopped. California's pension plans are dangerously under funded, the result of overly generous pension promises, wishful thinking and an unwillingness to plan prudently. Unless aggressive reforms are implemented now, the problems will get far worse, forcing counties and cities to severely reduce services and layoff employees to meet pension obligations."
The words above are taken from the 50 or so pages of the Little Hoover Commission Report released last month. The report is about the State at large - but its words apply so accurately to La Mesa that it seems to be talking about us.
Our anticipated 2011/12 pension payments, including Social Security, are about $6.5 million - millions more than they were only recently. That represents about 13.5% of our entire General Fund - just for pensions! On top of that we have a roughly $32 million unfunded pension liability.
There can't be many left who doubt the major threat that out of control public sector pension costs pose to our City's (and our State's) finances. To me it is equally clear that there is neither a need or a moral justification for public employee pensions to be so much more generous than those that most in the private sector enjoy. The pension problem has been festering for several years now and we have yet to see a plan to avoid the dire consequences the Little Hoover Commission warns us about.
I don't sense urgency from our City Council members to aggressively confront this problem. I say that reluctantly because I am confident that each of them cares about our city. I say it because the actions they have taken over the past few years, since this problem became clear, have been slow and timid. We can't afford that approach. We need to deal with the problem now. A good start would be a comprehensive plan to show exactly how La Mesa will pay back the $32 million unfunded pension liability.
Helix Water District has yet to do anything to curb their pension costs. Rate payers continue, to this day, to pay the employee portion of pension costs. HWD employees receive Social Security and, at no cost to them, an overly generous CalPers pension and a small 401(a) matching program. Like the City, HWD pension costs are rapidly rising and they have an unfunded pension liability. The outcome of ongoing MOU negotiations will be telling. I expect some pension reform - if for no other reason than to assuage public outcry. But I am not nearly as confident that the pension reform they make will be meaningful. Guess we will find out soon.
P.S.. If you live in El Cajon, you might want to find out how much your city spends on pensions and how much your unfunded liability is. My guess is that they will also be disturbing numbers.
Russell Buckley is a founding member of the East County Tax Hawks and a resident of La Mesa. The opinions in this editorial reflect the views of its author and do not necessarily reflect the views of East County Magazine. To submit an editorial for consideration, contact firstname.lastname@example.org