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Congressman Bob Filner made a mistake early in his run for mayor.
No, it wasn’t promising a reform plan for employee pensions at the city of San Diego and then not delivering. And no, it wasn’t even the outlandish promises that he could save hundreds of millions of dollars without cutting benefits for the rank and file.
His mistake was admitting that there was a problem.
Once you buy into the idea that the city of San Diego has promised its employees pensions that it never planned to fund, and once you accept that the burden to pay them off has squeezed city services and angered residents, you have a choice to make.
You can say it’s worth it: Pay these people. We promised them a pension and we should raise the money or make the cuts necessary to pay them.
Or you can go the other way: Try to relentlessly hack at the debt and cut it down as far as you can, risking the ire of the employees for the gratitude of the taxpayers. This is the route apparently favored by Filner’s rivals to varying degrees.
There are hybrids. I used to imagine some kind of grand bargain. Some impressive employee concessions made easier to get with some cooperation from conservative taxpayer advocates.
But Filner wanted to go a different way. It’s not untried. It’s the don’t-piss-anyone-off route.
Filner plans to cap pensions at $99,999 a year. OK. Do it. Nobody seems to be opposed to this. Why hasn’t this happened yet?
Next, he plans to do a five-year labor deal with employees. This is in direct response to the five-year pensionable pay freeze included in the pension reform ballot initiative, Proposition B. Where Prop. B merely gives the City Council a mandate and limits their ability to veer away from a pay freeze, Filner wants to go ahead and secure two years of pay freezes and then three years of 2 percent across-the-board increases.
The pension system assumes that salaries won’t go up across the board for the next two years. But then it assumes they’ll rise 3.75 percent. So there’s some savings there.
Voice of San Diego writer Liam Dillon compiled an excellent explanation of Filner’s whole plan and the questions you should be asking.
But, at its heart, the plan is a trip to the casino.
Filner wants to borrow money from Wall Street investors, take that money and invest it in the pension system.
This is called a pension obligation bond. It’s not that weird — many other places have done it, including the county.
The idea is that you’ll make more on your investments than you’ll pay on interest for the money you borrow.
You’d think this would give Filner pause. He has called the stock market a casino. In fact, it’s such a risky casino, he says workers can’t trust it with their individual retirements.
But there’s only one thing worse than going to a casino: borrowing money and then going to a casino. You can lose the money you borrowed. And if you lose it, you still have to pay everyone back.
Yet, despite all of this risk, Filner claims this is where his big savings comes from: The city will borrow money at 6.5 percent interest and invest it in the pension system. The investing gurus there will make 7.5 percent. Such an infusion of cash will also lower our immediate contribution requirements.
It would lengthen the time the debt is paid off, as well. Right now, the pension system is set to pay it off over 20 years. The bonds would be 30 years.
Here’s how Filner describes it:
Such an approach will put over $500 million into the City’s general fund over the next 10 years — without new taxes! We can fix potholes, save our libraries and recreation centers, fund needed neighborhood infrastructure, prevent fire-station brownouts, and hire new police officers. No other plan can do this!
It’s a miracle.
Yes, many other municipalities have done this. I was there, in 2004, when officials from the county of San Diego posed for pictures with their counterparts at the county pension system and with a giant check as a prop. They’d just issued $450 million more in pension bonds and handed the money over the pension system to invest as they pleased.
You see, just a few years earlier, the county had borrowed far more than that. But the hole kept getting bigger and they had to go back to the bank again.
Here’s the county pension system’s recent history in an easy 350 words. The county has far more lavish benefits for its employees than the city does.
The county pension system has borrowed money, made questionable investments and yet still demands gigantic annual contributions from taxpayers each year. It’d take a ridiculous analysis I’m not capable of right now to see how it paid off. But there was no bonanza.
To use the county’s experience as a model to emulate is worrisome.
It’s not that the borrowing-money part is so bad. It may be a better way to handle the liabilities created by employee pensions. But you can’t make the argument that it will definitely save money we can use for parks, libraries, rec centers and ponies.
As former City Councilwoman Donna Frye, one of Filner’s most prominent supporters, pointed out, it could turn out bad. “I am not supportive of POBs or Prop. B’s proposal to switch employees to a 401(k)-style plan, since there is no guarantee that either will save money and may actually end up costing more,” she said in an email.
Filner would have been better off arguing that we should make some small changes and then pay the pensions off with, you know, taxes. He could say that the pensions set a good standard for other workers in all sectors and that we should fund them and be proud of our public servants.
That would have been better than this plan and magic promise. It would not have been an attractive plea to many people worried about the city’s finances and taxes. But it would have been a proud, confident stance.
Instead, he accepted his rivals’ framing of the problem. The pensions are a difficult problem, he admits.
We just don’t need to do anything difficult to solve it.
I’m Scott Lewis, the CEO of Voice of San Diego. Please contact me if you’d like at firstname.lastname@example.org or 619.325.0527 and follow me on Twitter (it’s a blast!):
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