Monday, March 14, 2005 | This is the first in a weekly series detailing the personal effects of San Diego’s financial crisis. What level of benefits is fair for city employees to receive? Should promises made to them be changed? E-mail Voice with your thoughts.

Monday was supposed to be Jack Russell’s last day of work. Tuesday was to bring retirement after 31 years at the city of San Diego.

But Tuesday’s dream is gone, victim of a lingering uncertainty created by recent legal and political attempts to undue city workers’ retirement benefits – vested rights on which the boat operator has long planned his very near future.

“We had it budgeted out so that we be able to do okay, but if they cut these benefits back… it would just make it really hard,” says Russell through the bushy red and grey mustache that stretches down to his chin.

One lawsuit stands pending challenging existing retirement benefits. Plans abound from all corners of city leadership to cut benefits in order to tame a crippling $1.37 billion pension deficit, and any number of them could have a significant impact on the very retirement benefits that Russell calculated his life around.

Russell is not alone. As San Diego’s political and financial drama crescendos toward cacophony, the quiet lives of everyday city workers have been drowned to the background.

He is but one of the 11,000 everyday city employees sucked into a public controversy in which their retirement checks have become a rallying point for pension reformers. But people like Russell didn’t negotiate the benefits. He didn’t tinker with the pension funding.

He’s only been to City Hall once; it’s merely another profile in the skyline from his dock across the bay in Point Loma.

“They talk about million dollar pensions or ‘Cadillac pensions’ or this kind of stuff,” says Russell, speaking of the more lucrative pensions of some management workers that have grabbed attention in the media. “The guys that are out on the streets, fixing the streets, at the sewer outfalls, they don’t make a huge salary.”

The 59 year old makes about $50,000 a year. After insurance expenses, he calculates his pension check will be $2,700 a month. But plans on the table or in the courtroom could trim benefit enhancements granted in 2002 or could freeze his expected medical benefit. They could also affect the five years of pension credits he purchased at a discounted rate for $36,000 last year.

The effects of the city’s fiscal woes could be very tangible for folks like Russell, and his concerns are legitimate. Still, deal with the giant deficit the officials must or the pension will devour the city’s operating budget. As it is, more layoffs and service cuts are planned for the 2006 fiscal year and a budget gap of tens of millions of dollars remains. Those are only the short-term answers for a long-term problem. The effect is likely to be felt by all, from users of the city’s services to city workers; from taxpayers to tourists.

So how would Russell deal with the problem if it were his?

“Well, one thing, it wouldn’t happen if I was home. I don’t believe in charging up a lot of bills you can’t pay. I don’t run up my credit cards,” he says. “I bought a new car a few years, and I paid it off.”

Ironically, the uncertainty drove Russell to go downtown Thursday and enroll for one of the more controversial pension benefits of all, DROP, or the Deferred Retirement Option Program. By promising to retire within five years and freezing retirement benefits based on current pay, employees are given an account that collects annually for up to five years the equivalent of their retirement benefits while they are still working, plus an 8 percent interest. Workers then get the cash sum accumulated when they choose to retire.

The stout Russell is one of about 4,000 city workers represented by Local 127, the union for blue collar workers. He’s one of two boat drivers for the Metropolitan Wastewater Department that transport the city’s marine biologists to sea to monitor sewage levels at the city’s wastewater discharge outfalls.

So come Tuesday, he’ll be back out on the 42-foot aluminum research boat, cruising through a familiar stretch of 25 miles of coastline rather than that first foreign day of retirement.

From there, he’ll monitor the changing political tides, hoping for signs that it’s safe to call it a career.

“You look forward to this day, and then everything’s kind of changed,” he says.

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