Everyone loves applause—especially politicians. Yet leadership in difficult times often requires making decisions that don’t draw applause. It means having the independence to stand up for everybody, not just the loudest voices or the most powerful groups. When leaders have the independence to tell those groups what they don’t want to hear, it threatens the status quo. And threatened people yell.
So, let’s take a breath, hit the “pause” button on the yelling, and start where we all agree.
First, San Jose needs more police officers.
In August of this year, Mayor Reed and I proposed a strategy to help put 200 more cops on the street. This strategy focuses on identifying scarce funds to boost hiring of new officers, and to increase police pay sufficiently to stem the rate of officer departures to higher-paying cities. On Sept. 3, the Council voted 10-1 to move forward with this approach.
Unremarkable, isn’t it?
The loudest voices say otherwise.. Last week, the San Jose Police Officers’ Association (POA) launched a petition accusing me of having all kinds of unappealing attributes (some of which, my mother alleges, are inaccurate), and spent thousands in Facebook ads. (Mom objected again, urging me to improve my posture on camera.) Two days later, on this website, Councilmember Ash Kalra launched a diatribe repeating many of the POA’s arguments. (My Mom didn’t read it but wishes we’d all stop the arguing and hurry up and have grandchildren.)
We all agree on the need to add cops, and we agree on the need to increase pay to keep them. So, why the anger and accusations from the police union and their political proxies?
Simply, this isn’t a debate over how to hire more officers. This is a resumption of the continuing battles about our tax dollars: how we spend them, how much, and who gets to decide.
Yes, we need to add more officers. Yet adding more officers isn’t the only way to make our city safer. We need to deploy new technologies like data analytics to support predictive policing, expand community-based crime prevention efforts like neighborhood watch, bolster youth job training and gang prevention programs, keep truant kids in school and enliven dark blocks of vacant storefronts.
We need all of these things for a safe city, and most of them cost money.
As retirement costs ballooned over the last decade, spending on pensions and retiree healthcare crowded out spending on everything else. The result: We had to cut police staffing and (with the agreement of our employees) reduce pay, and slash a lot of other services like fire protection, library hours and food programs for low-income seniors.
I pushed for pension reform with the mayor precisely because we could no longer afford to run a city while paying average pensions of over $100,000 to retiring officers—increasing 3% annually, along with free health insurance, and large sick leave payouts—over the past decade. Without reform, we would only increase the burden of unfunded liabilities—already exceeding $2.9 billion—on our grandchildren and continue to cut all other services. After nine months of negotiations, public safety unions offered an alternative plan at the 11th hour, but that proposal would not assure a halt in the growth of this unfunded debt.
Today, the police union demands that we restore pay more quickly. Nobody can blame them for doing so; their members took painful pay cuts to continue working in San Jose during the recession, for which every resident should feel grateful. Although average officer salaries, including premium pay, now approach $100,000. San Jose pays less than departments in nearby smaller, wealthier cities.
Understandably, they want more.
We need elected officials who can stand up for everyone, though, not just powerful interest groups. We’ve proposed pay increases for police at a pace that already exceeds that of any other city employees. We need to increase police compensation, but do so within our means.
What about Kalra’s argument—that we raise police salaries faster, and hire more officers sooner? As was repeatedly stated during the Sept. 3 hearing (e.g., at 1:20:07 of the video), our proposal already enables us to do so if revenues increase faster in future years. But we’ve only identified roughly $30 million that we need to reach the goal of 1,250 officers in four years, and millions more are still required. Kalra fails to identify any specific funding source for his even-costlier alternative, instead relying on vague references to future “excess fund balance” and “excess revenues” that may never materialize.
Mr. Kalra’s argument could gain credibility if he would specify whose taxes he will raise, and which services—among the already-decimated funding for libraries, senior nutrition and street repairs—he will slash to fund his alternative.
Kalra also criticizes our proposal because we “rejected … considering additional funding sources” to pay for the hiring. Apparently, he only read two pages of it. Page 3 of the proposal specifically directs that we “should consider any of several options for identifying these funds, including but not limited to any of the following revenue sources, existing allocations or savings.”
Equally puzzling is Kalra’s objection that we’ll dwarf pay raises with increasing mandates on officers to pay for pension liabilities. To address this concern, we’d already amended the proposal at the start of the Sept. 3 hearing, to clarify that any 10 percent increase would apply to net wages (as reflected in the automated transcript, at page 24, or video, at 1:18:45) until the IRS allows employees to opt into a less costly tier of benefits. That clarification reasonably persuaded all of Kalra’s colleagues to support the proposal—including Councilmember Xavier Campos, who initially signed on to Kalra’s critical memo—but didn’t stop Kalra from parroting the old POA argument.
Kalra also decries the “political nature” of “the sudden urgency to deal with police officer retention,” but forgets that over eight months ago, I formally proposed a police retention incentive, along with other options, as part of a five-year police staffing strategy. Kalra should remember that proposal, though, because at a hearing Feb. 11, 2013, he supported studying it further. Former defense attorney Kalra asserted that I only developed a “recent interest” in public safety, but he should remember a few of my seven years as a criminal prosecutor, when I spent long days and nights working successfully to convict sexual predators, drug dealers and other former clients of his.
Nobody is expecting applause here. Tough decisions lay ahead, and we need to work together to solve this difficult problem without grandstanding. We also need independent leadership from the City Council to balance the need to restore officer pay with our limited ability to pay for it. Let’s just take a break from the yelling and refocus our energies on how best to create a safer San Jose.
Sam Liccardo is a councilmember for San Jose’s District 3.