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Opinion: Beware the broad-brush approach to reducing public pensions

There has been a lot of talk lately about the salaries and retirement benefits of public employees.  I have been listening not only as the president of the largest statewide association of public safety members in California and in the nation, but as someone who has worked my entire adult life in law enforcement in California.

Since 2003, I have been the president of the Peace Officers Research Association of California, PORAC.  We represent 62,000-plus members.  

You will find PORAC members working in cities and for counties; in public schools, community colleges, and on college and university campuses; in courts, in jails, and in public agencies in every community.  We are there to protect the public on our streets, in our airports and on rail, in our parks, and on our waterfronts.  

We believe that if your families aren’t safe, nothing else matters.

We agree that California is facing a major budget deficit as our country is just beginning to recover from the worst economy any of us have seen in our lifetime. Policy leaders are being forced to pare the services being offered in all of our communities.  

However, we respectfully disagree with the Legislative Analyst’s Office’s broad-brushed announcement last week, suggesting reducing pensions for public employees.  

In 2007 and 2008, I was fortunate to participate as a member of the governor’s California Public Employee Post-Employment Benefits Commission, chaired by Gerald Parsky. We worked throughout 2007 to get beyond the poisonous rhetoric and to the facts about how pension retirement systems work.  After serving on the governor’s commission, I know the importance of taking a studied look at the complex issues confronting our retirement security system.  

It is easy to generalize, use faulty data and indulge in popular demagoguery by blaming all of our states budget woes on the pay and benefits of public employees, instead of identifying the real reasons for our budget problems including Wall Street abuses and the crumbling housing market.

The truth is: California’s pensions have been financially viable for more than 75 years. In this time, we have seen that they are a highly efficient tool for investing and proving benefits.   Furthermore, employer contributions to pension plans are lower today than they were in the early 1980s, and the funded status of plans is better than in the early 1980s.
The financial problems in California are shared by all of us.  Peace officers are making concessions that represent a step backward in their compensation package.  We have been hit with layoffs, and have accepted the concomitant responsibilities and increased dangers on the job as part of our professional challenge.  

We believe that public safety is the primary goal of government.  Everyday California peace officers don bullet-proof vests, tasers, batons, and guns to protect ourselves on the job. And the risk to our lives, everyday, is real.  Dozens of California cops are assaulted on the job daily.  And every year, California adds an average of 15 names of officers killed in the line of duty to the California Peace Officers Memorial.   

The truth is that 75 percent of California public safety retirement compensation is less than $36,000 a year.  Most do not receive Social Security and health care benefits continue to be negotiated as the markets fluctuate.  Less than 2 percent of retired public employees receive benefit levels exceeding $100,000.  They get most of the attention.

The reality of retirement is altered from the spiking abuses that you hear about.  It is not tolerable and it reflects poorly on all officers, when the final year pay of an officers’ contract is artificially inflated.  The money paid is not only unearned, but the retirement formula is skewed. It needs to end.  

A recent New York Times blog mentioned a new study by Sun Life Financial, which alleges that more and more Americans are being “unretired” – that is they continue to work after traditional retirement age.  The study found that this year, for the first time ever, respondents chose to work years longer than originally planned, and just as many respondents expect to retire at age 70, not age 65, because of “economic conditions…and dwindling retirement savings.”

The LAO believes, “we are headed to a place where government employees will be the only people in society who have these sorts of retirement benefits.  That is troubling.”  
We agree.  It is troubling. We believe that all Californians deserve to retire with dignity.  

We must prepare for our future and take a long-term approach in finding solutions.  We must not employ knee-jerk reactions that will set up our neighbors for failure.  

We believe a reasoned discussion can still emerge on public employee and public safety pay.  Let’s get to the bargaining table and find solutions.  Abuses can be addressed.  Let’s work together so that all Californians should have retirement benefits that allow them to retire with dignity.


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