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Four years after voters closed the city’s public employee pension system, every candidate for City Council District 9 says the city should give pensions to at least some new city employees.
One of them even offered a path to reinstating them that he was later forced to retract.
Proposition B, the 2012 ballot measure, froze the pay the city considers to calculate pensions for existing city employees for five years. It also ended guaranteed retirement benefits for new hires.
Now, some city employee representatives blame that proposition for city hiring problems. In particular, a shortage of 911 dispatchers has prompted new discussions about the wisdom of austerity, though it’s unclear if a pension and better pay alone would solve those problems. Critics say that the city can’t compete with neighboring agencies like the county or city of Chula Vista when dispatchers qualify for the job.
San Diegans have waited several minutes or more to get their 911 calls answered, even though emergency calls should be answered within seconds. At least one person – a three-day-old boy – died after calls from his family went unanswered.
Candidates in liberal District 9 believe offering pensions may help solve the dispatcher problem.
Ricardo Flores, one of the candidates, is himself a relatively new city employee without a pension – he is chief of staff to current District 9 City Councilwoman Marti Emerald. He said it’s “fine” if voters don’t want city employees to have pensions.
“But,” Flores said during a forum last week in City Heights, “the problem with that is this: There is no municipality that I’m aware of – in the state of California, in the state of Arizona, in the state of Nevada, in the Southwest United States – that does not offer a pensionable pension to its employees.”
Flores said he would “absolutely” support giving pensions to newly hired dispatchers.
The other three candidates in the race agreed. In doing so, they are following somewhat in Emerald’s footsteps. She opposed Prop. B.
“The fact that people are literally dying because we do not have enough dispatchers is not acceptable,” said candidate Sarah Saez, the program director for the United Taxi Workers of San Diego. “So we have to make sure that these jobs are paid well, that they have pensions, that we are able to keep these employees in our city.”
Saez went a step further: She supports again giving pensions to all city employees.
Georgette Gomez, a candidate and environmental activist, said she would “most definitely” work to reinstate pensions for dispatchers.
Araceli Martinez, a candidate and family law attorney, would also restore pensions to dispatchers.
Flores, though, misspoke during the City Heights forum about how easy that would be: He said six members of the nine-member City Council could vote to restore pensions.
That’s wrong, which Flores acknowledged in a follow-up interview.
In fact, while a supermajority of the council can raise employee salaries, it cannot restore pensions as long as Proposition B remains on the books. A previous change to the City’s Charter also prohibited enhancements to city employee pensions without a vote of the people.
Lani Lutar, who led the San Diego Taxpayers Association when Proposition B passed, said the Council candidates’ stances were embarrassing and unacceptable.
“There’s no excuse for any San Diego City Council candidate to not have any understanding of what two-thirds of the electorate voted in favor of and that has been the source of the city’s financial troubles going on more than a decade,” Lutar, who is still a member of the Taxpayers Association board, said.
Sixty-six percent of voters approved Prop. B in 2012.
The measure remains under considerable threat.
Late last year, the state public employee labor board handed down a doozy of a decision against the city, attacking former Mayor Jerry Sanders and other politicos’ machinations in advance of the measure’s passage. If that ruling is upheld, it could cost the city a ton of money, restart the pension system and generally cause pandemonium. The City Council has unanimously agreed to appeal the decision to get clarity.
Unions are now trying to use the ruling for leverage to negotiate a compromise and perhaps bring back pensions for new employees.
Unions recently wrote a letter to the City Council and Mayor Kevin Faulconer to ask the city to begin negotiating a rollback of Prop B.
While the City Council can’t vote to give out pensions, it could give up its appeal of the labor board ruling, which might have the same effect.
“The only way the City Council could affect that is to stop appealing the lawsuit that seeks to overturn Prop. B entirely – which is something the mayor does not support,” Faulconer’s spokesman, Matt Awbrey, wrote in an email.
The Taxpayers Association and the San Diego Regional Chamber of Commerce – now led by Sanders – have both released statements in recent days urging the mayor and the City Council to hold the line and keep the pension system closed to new hires. Attorneys for Proposition B supporters have also fired back at unions and urged the election in City Council District 1 of Ray Ellis, who opposes reinstating pensions.
His opponent, Barbara Bry, also supported Proposition B and said a recent debate she thinks it will withstand the legal fight. But she also hinted she would consider reinstating pensions for lifeguards and firefighters.
Instead of pensions, those and all new city hires except police are now given money to invest in a 401(k) retirement plan. That benefit is typical for the private sector. City workers, however, are used to being given guaranteed annual benefits that rise with inflation after they retire. (Police officers may still have pensions, but 911 dispatchers do not.)
Faulconer’s newly revised budget proposal does have several million for police and dispatchers, including $651,636 in new money to hire and retain new dispatchers. That money would likely be used to raise wages.