Photo by Sam Hodgson
San Diego mayoral candidate Bob Filner’s pension plan is his panacea.
It allows him to claim he’ll fix the city’s longest standing financial crisis, its debt-ridden pension system. It puts $550 million into the city’s day-to-day operating budget over the next 10 years, he says, money that can fix potholes and improve public safety. Its success even will allow him to establish credibility in city government, enough to eventually ask San Diegans to approve new taxes.
There’s just one problem. Filner’s plan doesn’t exist yet.
Two hundred and eighty days ago, Filner, a Democratic congressman, announced he was running for mayor. At his announcement, he said he would release his pension plan in “about a month.” He didn’t. And during the next nine months he’s said repeatedly his plan is only days or weeks away. But instead of his actual proposal, he’s only given excuses for why it’s not ready yet.
To be sure, Filner has given outlines of his plan. He wants to cap pensions for new hires at $106,000, enter into a five-year agreement with labor groups and refinance the pension debt to pay it off over a longer term. The last part is the centerpiece and Filner is expected to credit it for the most savings at the expense of delaying pension payments. He’s presenting the plan as an alternative to a Republican and business-backed initiative that gives most new city employees 401(k)s instead of pensions.
In a mayoral forum Wednesday in Mission Valley, Filner used his pension ideas as a cudgel against his three Republican opponents, who all support the existing initiative. Filner says his ideas will save more money.
But without seeing his plan on paper, the public has no way of knowing if he’s telling the truth.
By this point, Filner’s twists, turns and false starts on releasing his plan have become comedic. But they also reveal a key point about his candidacy. Unlike his three main opponents, Filner hasn’t released any specific policy platforms about anything — not just pensions. This isn’t entirely by design. At one point, Filner wanted his alternative pension plan to go on the June ballot, too. The deadline for that to happen has just passed.
We thought the best way to look at Filner’s pension plan foibles was to present them, and some related events, in a timeline. Here’s the long and winding road starting with Filner’s mayoral announcement and ending with still nothing on paper.
June 8, 2011. Filner announces for mayor. An alternative pension plan, he says, is on its way. “About a month.”
Aug. 19, 2011. Filner outlines his pension plan. He wants to cap pensions for new employees at $125,000 a year, force employees to take unspecified concessions and lessen the city’s annual pension payments through refinancing its debt. He also says he wants his plan on the June ballot to compete with the Republican-backed initiative. “You can’t fight something with nothing.”
Aug. 25, 2011. District Attorney Bonnie Dumanis, another mayoral candidate, flips her position and now supports the pension initiative, leaving Filner the only major candidate to oppose it.
Sept. 7, 2011. City Council President Tony Young says he’s open to an alternative pension ballot measure, but hasn’t seen one from Filner or anyone else.
Sept. 16, 2011. Filner tells our own Scott Lewis on the radio that his pension plan will be available soon. “It’s being run through accountants and actuaries and we hope to have an answer soon.”
Sept. 30, 2011. Backers of the existing pension initiative turn in 145,027 signatures to the City Clerk, 50,000 more than they need for it to qualify for the June ballot.
Nov. 8, 2011. Elections officials verify the pension initiative’s signatures, ensuring it will appear on the ballot.
Dec. 12, 2011. The city’s white-collar union endorses Filner. After a press conference, Filner says he’s given a draft of his pension proposal in writing to city council members. “Most of them have it.” Public records requests to city council members turn up nothing.
Dec. 16, 2011. U-T San Diego editorialist Bill Osborne tweets it has been 190 days since Filner said he would “soon” release his pension plan.
Jan. 8, 2012. Filner tells the U-T he’s still crunching numbers on his plan.
Jan. 13, 2012. At the first mayoral debate with all four major candidates, Filner is asked a direct question about his pension plan. He says the pension cap now is $106,000 (not $125,000). He also fleshed out some more specifics. He’ll have a five-year labor agreement. He’ll refinance the pension debt. He claims the plan will save $500 million over the next decade. “The only way we can get out of this pension mess is not by throwing the public employees under the bus.”
Feb. 7, 2012. Democratic City Councilman David Alvarez releases his own alternative to the pension initiative that caps pensions at $99,999 for new hires.
Feb. 9, 2012. Young squashes Alvarez’s plan, saying there isn’t enough time before the March 9 ballot deadline to have a real debate.
Feb. 10, 2012. Filner tells the U-T he plans to release his plan sometime in the next week, but wanted to see a financial analysis of the existing initiative first. “I have mine ready, I just want to make sure all my charts and graphs are ready to show more savings than (fellow candidate Carl) DeMaio’s.”
Feb. 11, 2012. One of Filner’s highest-profile endorsers, former City Councilwoman Donna Frye, tells our Andrew Donohue that she disagrees with Filner’s proposal to refinance pension debt and has told him so.
Feb. 13, 2012. A state labor board asks for temporary restraining order to block the pension initiative from reaching the ballot. In response, Filner tells NBC 7 San Diego he might release his plan at the next day’s City Council meeting or might delay it depending on the result of the labor complaint.
Feb. 21, 2012. A judge denies the labor board’s request to block the existing initiative from appearing on the ballot.
Feb. 27, 2012. The U-T’s City Hall reporter, Craig Gustafson, tweets that Filner told him the pension plan is on paper and Gustafson could have it any time. He says Filner said that two weeks prior.
March 9, 2012. Filner misses the deadline for the City Council to put measures on the June ballot. That means his plan can’t compete with the Republican-backed initiative like he had wanted.
March 14, 2012. Filner talks extensively about his pension plan at a mayoral forum in Mission Valley. Afterward, he says it’s still on its way. The circumstances keep changing, he says, and it’s only responsible for him to have the most updated information. “We’ve got two-and-a-half months before the election,” he says.
Liam Dillon is a news reporter for voiceofsandiego.org. He covers San Diego City Hall, the 2012 mayor’s race and big building projects. What should he write about next?
Please contact him directly at firstname.lastname@example.org or 619.550.5663.
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