Monday, March 21, 2005 | This is the second in a 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.

Rick Rowe spends most of his time in Point Loma, either at his rented home or his office close by, peering into a microscope with his one good eye. The city of San Diego marine biologist hunches over the device and studies marine worms for traces of sewage pollution, his braided and grayed pony tail strung down his long back.

But, increasingly, his mind inches away from the task at hand and to the upside-down political reality of today’s City Hall.

Rowe, who wears glasses and a lengthy goatee, went back to studying these marine worms for the very same reason many workers, blue and white collar alike, choose the municipal workplace: security and a pension. It’s an assumption that now, decades later, stands as wobbly as the political structure downtown across the bay.

As city leaders search in earnest for ways to tame a $1.37 billion pension deficit brought about by increased pension benefits, a decade-long history of intentional underfunding and stock market losses, the personal financial prospects of approximately 11,000 city workers have suddenly come under the public scope. A pending lawsuit could strip away all benefit increases given to employees in 2002 on the grounds that they were attained illegally because of conflict-of-interest issues of former pension board members. Competing arms of City Hall leadership have each proposed separate plans that would freeze or repeal benefits that city workers such as Rowe have planned their life around.

Media accounts seize on million-dollar pensions assured to some of the higher paid city management. Public anger shifts toward their city’s workers as they measure private industry benefits against those of their publicly employed counterparts.

But Rowe didn’t sit at the negotiation table and hammer out pension benefits for city employees. He didn’t tinker with the pension plan’s funding. He doesn’t lobby City Hall.

He left his hand-built home on 10 acres of land down the road from Yosemite National Park about 12 years ago to return to his career. The draw: a public pension. Now, 55 years old and a hopeful two years away from retirement, Rowe watches the city’s woes and political machinations wearily. He searches for cracks in his meticulously planned financial foundation.

Rowe looks at news reports detailing the more lucrative benefits granted to some long-time, upper management workers and says that it’s a different story for most workers.

“I know myself and my co-workers, when we retire, we are going to scrape to get by, pretty much like anybody,” he said over an iced tea on an overcast morning in Point Loma, where he and his wife, an artist, rent a small house.

Rowe’s job is a bit more specialized than most. He works in taxonomy, studying sewage pollution levels in small animal life that live in the mud off of Point Loma, where the city’s wastewater treatment plant discharges treated sewage into the ocean.

The plant operates with a treatment system normally deemed inferior by federal law. However, if the city can show that its discharge isn’t environmentally harmful to the coast, it can continue without performing an upgrade estimated to cost hundreds of millions of dollars. It’s Rowe’s peer-reviewed work that is a factor in allowing the city to operate with the waiver and avoid the costly upgrade.

Taking mud samples is a more precise science, Rowe said, than water samples. Water is transient, and given to the cycles of tides and currents. Rowe, a devout environmentalist, is one of about 50 or 60 people who work in the field on the West Coast, he said.

He makes about $60,000 a year and has worked for the city for 12 years. Retirement checks will total $2,700 a month when he retires; $2,000 of that will be from the city and the remaining $700 from his time doing maintenance for schools when he lived in Yosemite.

Rowe is a student of pension systems and bones up on the details of Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger’s plan to make fundamental changes to public-employee pensions. Rowe speaks often of the distribution of wealth in society, and believes strongly in the systems currently in place.

Rowe recently bought his retirement home in Oregon, and still plans on running a consulting business on the side because he said he won’t be able to survive on just his pension and retirement alone. The plans put forth by politicians and the pending lawsuit, filed by the San Diego County Taxpayers Association, could change the equation he’s been working under for years.

Is he worried?

“Of course,” he said. “… Both what the mayor and the city attorney are proposing, the mechanisms by which a lot of this is going to impact the employees are not defined.

“So there’s a lot of anxiety.”

But the fact remains: The city is dealing with a crippling budget problem. City officials are scrambling to cover an announced $50 million hole for 2006. There’s a billion dollar pension deficit. Future unfunded retiree medical costs are estimated in the hundreds of millions of dollars. A once-secure system has spun out of control.

So how would Rowe tackle such a gigantic problem?

“I would be a very unpopular leader,” he said. “The revenue side has to get looked at. At home, when I need to balance my budget, I can’t only look at the expense side, I have to look at the revenue side, and I’m doing that right now.”

Perhaps understandably, many city workers shift focus to the revenue side when asked about how to deal with such a crushing financial problem. But some, like Rowe, also are pragmatic and understand that they might have to shoulder some of the budget burden. As annual budgets unfold, the pension deficit is addressed and city officials begin to look at raising taxes and fees, it is likely a burden to be felt by everyone from city workers to park users, from tourists to taxpayers.

For his part, Rowe is working two jobs, seven days a week. “I’m even more desperate now with the impact this new plan may have.” Rowe worries that Mayor Dick Murphy’s plan will affect his medical benefits, and that the San Diego City Employees’ Retirement System board could change the amount of interest his new DROP account receives. City Attorney Mike Aguirre’s plan could affect five years of working service he purchased five years ago at a discounted rate for $45,000.

DROP, or Deferred Retirement Option Plan, has become one of the more controversial benefits offered to city employees. Employees agree to freeze their salary in the retirement equation and retire within five years. In exchange, each year they stay in the program, an account accrues their yearly retirement check and 8 percent interest. Rowe plans to stay in DROP for two and a half years, at which point he estimates he’ll withdraw $65,000 from the account.

Some of his counterparts in the private industry are likely to employ a skeptical eye when reviewing some of Rowe’s retirement numbers.

But these figures, Rowe said, don’t tell the story of what he’s sacrificed to receive this pension. He hasn’t had a promotion in 10 years. Those in the private sector have the ability to move up in the chain. He has his pension, period.

The strength of the San Diego pension, in fact, kept him from leaving a few years ago when he could’ve taken a better-paying position in San Francisco. It’s a decision he now rethinks.

“I’m not claiming the city’s a terrible place or a great place to work,” he said. “It’s like most places. There’s advantages and disadvantages. Your boss promises you a salary, you kind of expect to get it, and benefits and packages and stuff.”

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