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• Notice! I’ve moderated my fair share of public forums and I usually forget to tout them but I’ve really got to mention this one. On Feb. 8 at 6:30 at the Joyce Beers Community Center, the Hillcrest Town Council is hosting a discussion about the city of San Diego’s budget crisis.

Now, that’s not the interesting part. The interesting part is the lineup. Look at this list of panelists:

• Councilman Carl DeMaio

• Michael Zucchet, president of the city’s largest labor union, the Municipal Employees Association

• Mike Aguirre, the former city attorney

• Alan Gin, USD economics professor

DeMaio will be talking about his “Roadmap to Recovery.” Zucchet will, of course, have a bit different perspective. Aguirre will say they’re both wrong and the best route is straight to bankruptcy court. And Gin will say there are, of course, a lot of factors to consider in the local economy and we’ll have to see how it turns out. As Rachel Laing said last night, you might want to bring popcorn for this one.

• Speaking of DeMaio, San Diego City Attorney Jan Goldsmith asked that I clarify a point from my last post about the councilman and the idea floating around to shrink the pension problem by capping “pensionable pay.”

Goldsmith was worried about the way I characterized his opinion on the matter.

Here was the offensive simplification:

Basically, the city attorney declared that the City Council can just say, every year, what part of a person’s pay counts toward their pensions and what doesn’t.

He says some city employees reading this might have thought that the City Council could now just declare a portion of their salaries off limits to calculate their pensions.

That’s not the case. Whatever a city employee has earned so far would remain under this plan. But it would be frozen.

This means that, for example, if you’re a city employee who earns $50,000 and gets an extra $20,000 a year for having a law degree, your pay is $70,000. And if that’s the most you’ve earned as a city employee, that is what will be used to calculate your retirement.

(Refer to the previous post for an explanation on how retirement is calculated.)

What Goldsmith and DeMaio are focusing on is stopping the growth of the city’s pension burden where it is. So, in this case, the person’s pensionable pay would freeze at $70,000. Goldsmith’s legal opinion said that it was legal to do this and still consider paying this person an additional performance-based bonus.

“You can exceed the base compensation if you have a legitimate bonus program in place,” Goldsmith told me.

Again, a city employee would not lose any ground. But their highest salary, in terms of what would be calculated for a pension, would freeze where it is. And Goldsmith believes this would be temporary.

He’s described this as a win for employees too — not just taxpayers. I asked him to explain that.

“It’s in all of our best interest to stabilize the payments to the pension system,” Goldsmith said.

This year, the pension payment is expected to be $231 million. I remember when I started covering the pension crisis in 2004. Back then, there were projections that in 2009 or later, we’d be hitting the point where the pension bill was more than $200 million.

This was considered horrifying.

I think this deserves a collective horror-filled scream. So, everyone together now: One, two, three “Gah!”

• And speaking of Zucchet, did you see this news that he’s taken the city up on the offer to begin unconditional global settlement talks?

No, they won’t be trying to solve truly global conflicts in need of settlement like strife in the Middle East or Brett Favre. But they would retire the myriad lawsuits between the city and its employees, including the one that won’t die. Yes, perhaps to add leverage to this settlement proposal, Goldsmith has recently made moves to keep former City Attorney Aguirre’s controversial pension litigation alive (San Diego Reader).

I see all of this, Zucchet and the MEA’s overture and talk of “comprehensive” settlement, as positive. The fact is, whether it’s in bankruptcy court or not, the city and its services will not recover until everyone gets in a room and figures out that taxpayers have legitimate complaints and employees would benefit from a future less uncertain than this one.

And for those upset with the fiscally conservative proposals framing the debate: Offer up an alternative. Residents want a government that is not so insanely imbalanced. What’s your plan to fix it? Jeffrey Davis, an increasingly strong tweeter, offered up this helpful thought to a frustrated Lorena Gonzalez the other day.

Re global settlement (& DeMaio town halls): time 4 labor/progressives to put out proposal & media events of own, take the lead.

That’s the idea: Frustrated with someone leading the debate? Try leading it yourself.

You can contact me directly at scott.lewis@voiceofsandiego.org or 619.325.0527 and follow me on Twitter (it’s a blast!): twitter.com/vosdscott.

Scott Lewis

Scott Lewis oversees Voice of San Diego’s operations, website and daily functions as Editor in Chief. He also writes about local politics, where he frequently...

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