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To hear San Diego Mayor Jerry Sanders tell it at his State of the City last Wednesday night, you’d think that pensions were the scourge of the earth.
“It’s clear that public employee pensions, which once brought order to government, are now a destabilizing force,” Sanders said. “They undermine public confidence, put assets at risk, and disrupt our ability to forecast costs. They are a vestige of a time when life spans were shorter, people stuck with one job, and city workers accepted less pay for greater security.”
Sanders was promoting his plan to replace pensions with a 401(k)-style system for new non-public safety employees. This system, which puts investment risk on employees, is fairer to taxpayers, he said.
But Sanders, the city’s former police chief, received $91,764 in retirement benefit payouts in 2008.
Is he still going to take his pension?
“I am,” Sanders said after the speech. “I earned it over 26 years.”
Sanders said pensions made sense when he retired as chief in 1999. His was legitimate, he said, because he didn’t take the city’s controversial benefits, such as purchasing extra service time or entering into the DROP, the Deferred Retirement Option Plan.
“I don’t feel guilty about that at all,” he said.
Pensions, he said, don’t work when cities increase benefits and don’t pay the required amounts and employees retire earlier and live longer.
Two points worth noting. First, it appears San Diego already has solved the problems Sanders mentioned. The city created a pension system with much lower benefits for new employees in 2009. (In his speech, Sanders said this system would save taxpayers nearly $400 million over the next 30 years.)
Also, the City Charter requires the city to make its annual pension contribution and requires voter approval for increased pension benefits. Both of these reforms came through ballot measures passed in the wake of pension scandals.
Second, police officers are exempt from Sanders’ 401(k) plan. As police chief, Sanders still would have been eligible for a pension under his new proposal.
Sanders’ salary and pension were put under the microscope in April 2009 after the U-T revealed the mayor began taking his full $100,464 salary despite a campaign pledge not to.