A bold red countdown ticks on the elections page for the city of San Jose’s website, informing voters just how many seconds, minutes, hours, and days stand between now and the June 5 primary election.
The countdown indicates a sense of urgency, and no issue facing the city is more crucial to the city’s future than pension reform. In just the last decade, the city’s required contribution to cover the costs of retiree benefits has more than tripled to $246 million, which is almost a third of the entire general fund’s revenue.
Mayor Chuck Reed’s efforts to curb city employee retirement benefits will be his legacy, and despite some reservations with his clumsy bedside manner as well as Measure B’s wording on disability qualifiers for public safety officials, the “pension modification” measure should be approved by voters. Measure B is the best bet to start restoring vital city services that have been cut.
A decade of budget shortfalls finally resulted in the first-ever layoffs of police officers last summer, and the thinly staffed department doesn’t even respond to alarms anymore. The budget shortfalls have also caused the partial closure or delayed openings of libraries, community centers and a $90 million police substation. The city’s roads are among the worst in the nation. Meanwhile, pay cuts have been imposed on city employees because pension negotiations have gone nowhere.
Measure B would not retroactively take back pensions already accrued or harm current retirees. It would require a greater contribution on the part of city employees, establish new rules for new hires (a.k.a. “the second tier”) and suspend cost-of-living increases, which on that last point almost everyone living in San Jose has had to do in the last five years.
There will be an immediate judicial review of Measure B if it passes, and while the arguments against certain portions’ legality could have some merit, the measure as currently worded is not near as draconian as its first draft.
Also, Measure B is structured in a way that a judge could throw out certain parts without scrapping the entire plan. The unions are correct in stating that their benefits were negotiated for fair and square in the past and that past City Councils should bear much of the burden for their poor forecasting.
But termed-out politicians don’t shoulder the costs, citizens do. In times of financial crisis, all parties must come together and make sacrifices for the common good.