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Like his Republican counterparts, Democratic mayoral candidate Bob Filner argues San Diego’s pension system needs an overhaul.

“Why not become a city that solves its pension problems without throwing its workers under the bus?” Filner said at a recent debate.

Filner, a congressman, says he will soon release his own comprehensive pension reform plan that promises to save hundreds of millions of dollars over the next decade. When he does, he will be targeting a system that also will provide for him in retirement.

Filner’s own public pension provides another example of the complexities and idiosyncrasies of government retirement benefits at a time when the debt created by them remains central to San Diego politics.

After more than four decades in public service, Filner’s pension will reach $82,000 annually assuming he retires after his current congressional term in 2012, a voiceofsandiego.org analysis found. If Filner wins San Diego’s mayoral election and serves two terms, he’d be eligible to receive a total pension worth almost $120,000 a year.

Filner, 69, taught at San Diego State University, served on the San Diego City Council and has spent the last two decades in Congress.

His government service entitles him to many of the pension perks targeted by reform crusaders. He retired from San Diego State at age 50. He received a retroactive benefit increase from the city. And if he becomes mayor, he can use that salary to boost his city payout far beyond what he earned as a councilman.

Regardless of whether he’s elected mayor, Filner’s total pension will be significantly below Republican mayoral candidate Bonnie Dumanis’ projected $250,000 annual payout. Dumanis’ pension will be more than she’s ever earned in salary. Filner’s will not. Dumanis also is backing an initiative that will eliminate pensions for most new city hires. Filner isn’t.

But assuming he serves two terms as mayor, Filner’s total pension could come close to the $125,000 cap he’s proposed for city workers’ pensions.

Filner’s campaign did not respond to an interview request to discuss his pension and did not allow VOSD to examine any documentation that would provide exact details about his annual payout. The VOSD analysis relied on public information on Filner’s service time and pension from San Diego State and the state and city retirement systems. It also used reports from Congress’ internal research service to pinpoint his federal benefit.

Filner is already receiving a state pension and is eligible for federal and city pensions, too. He could have started collecting his City Council pension in 1997, but he does not receive one now, retirement officials confirmed.

His pensions are based on some combination of the number of years he worked, his age at retirement and his salary. Here’s how his pensions break down:

State of California

Filner has a doctorate in the history of science from Cornell University in New York. He started working at San Diego State in 1970 and held full- and part-time teaching positions for 22 years. He retired at age 50 from the university when he was elected to Congress.

Filner now receives about $1,200 a month from the state, according to the state retirement system.

Current state pension annually: $14,183.28

U.S. Congress

Filner makes $174,000 a year as a congressman, a salary frozen since 2009. Assuming he retires at the end of his current term in 2012, he will have served 20 years.

His service time and salary would entitle him to an almost $60,000-a-year federal pension based on the congressional benefit formula.

Filner will receive at least two other retirement benefits because of his time in congress. He’s eligible for Social Security. Also, members of congress collect a 401(k)-like benefit. The federal government automatically contributes 1 percent of employees’ salary toward the 401(k) and will match up to 5 percent.

It’s unclear how much Filner has invested in the federal 401(k) plan and impossible to estimate the payout he’ll receive from it.

Estimated federal pension annually: $59,160

City of San Diego

Filner served on San Diego’s City Council for just more than five years, representing downtown and the city’s southernmost communities from 1987 to 1992. He earned $49,000 annually.

Nine years after he left, Filner benefitted from an unprecedented retroactive benefit increase for former city politicians. The deal, hatched between then-Councilman Jim Madaffer and former Councilman Mike Gotch, gave former city politicians larger payouts. That deal allows Filner to receive about $1,000 more a year than he was entitled to when he left the council.

Filner is eligible to receive about $8,700 a year from the city, but isn’t currently taking it. Though he’s left that money on the table for the last 14 years by not formally retiring from the city, his decision could boost the payout when he does retire.

If Filner becomes mayor and is re-elected four years later, he would be eligible for a more than $35,000 annual increase to his pension. We analyzed Filner’s pension over eight years because it’s common for San Diego mayors to be re-elected and they have a two-term limit.

Filner would receive such a large increase because he could add his years as a councilman to his city service time. His entire city pension, then, would be based on the $100,000 he’d earn as mayor, instead of his lower council salary.

Estimated city pension (if he doesn’t win the mayoral election): $8,695.05

Estimated city pension (if he serves two mayoral terms): $45,957.26

Pensions have been the primary issue in San Diego politics for much of the last decade. An initiative that would replace pensions with 401(k)s for most new city employees is expected to be the main fight during the June 2012 election, the same ballot as the mayoral primary. Supporters say their intent is to bar future elected officials from receiving a pension, including a mayoral pension for Filner. But because Filner hasn’t retired from the city yet, it’s unclear what would happen to his pension if the measure passed.

All three of the major Republican candidates for mayor, Dumanis, Councilman Carl DeMaio and Assemblyman Nathan Fletcher support the initiative. Filner called his opposition to the measure at a recent debate, “the biggest difference of me and the other three candidates in this election.”

DeMaio does not participate in the city’s retirement system and Fletcher, like state legislators first elected after 1990, won’t receive a pension.

Filner has released only broad strokes of his alternative pension proposal. He plans to cap pensions for new city employees at around $125,000 a year and reduce the current annual payment by extending the timeline for repaying pension debt, issuing bonds to pay it back or some combination of the two.

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 liam.dillon@voiceofsandiego.org or 619.550.5663.

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Liam Dillon

Liam Dillon was formerly a senior reporter and assistant editor for Voice of San Diego. He led VOSD’s investigations and wrote about how regular people...

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