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Solving San Diego’s Pension Crisis Requires Change

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Author: Cory Briggs
Created: 21 September, 2020
Updated: 14 August, 2022
3 min read

This is an independent opinion. Have one of your own? Write it! Email it to hoa@ivn.us

The city of San Diego has been drowning in public-pension quicksand for at least two decades. Back in the early 2000s, when the city’s pension system was under-funded by $1 billion, politicians and other high-level officials were accused by the Department of Justice and the Securities and Exchange Commission of “awarding generous new benefits to retirees while severely underfinancing the pension accounts” and then lying about it to Wall Street. Federal agents raided City Hall looking for evidence. Eventually the city’s mayor resigned, and several members of the pension system’s governing board were indicted.

By 2012, the pension deficit had grown to $2.1 billion. That’s when voters overwhelmingly passed Proposition B and implemented reform measures that eliminated pensions for all city employees except police officers. This meant no more pensions for employees represented by municipal unions, for management-level employees, or for elected officials and their political staff. Due to violations of labor laws by the politicians supporting the reforms, courts ruled that Proposition B could not be applied to union-member employees but refused to declare Proposition B invalid altogether

Fast-forward to 2020: The pension’s deficit has topped $3 billion and the city remains mired in a pension crisis, with no relief in sight.

Perhaps the biggest part of the problem is that the current city attorney, Mara Elliott, is unwilling to defend the will of the voters on the parts of Proposition B that courts have not criticized. No court has ruled that Proposition B cannot be applied to management-level employees or to elected officials and their political staff. Yet the city attorney persuaded the city council to join the unions in having the entirety of Proposition B declared unenforceable.

Since labor laws do not protect employees outside municipal unions, members of the public are legitimately asking: Why did the city attorney recommend that Proposition B be abandoned in its entirety?

Even though San Diego’s city attorney is an elected position, the current city attorney unilaterally put herself back into the voter-eliminated pension system when she told the system administrator to enroll her in the “Elected Official Benefit” program in February 2017, two months after assuming office. According to Exhibit “D” to a recent lawsuit filed against her, the annual cost to taxpayers to support her pension has increased by more than 400 percent compared to what it was before she assumed office; and according to Exhibit “E” to the lawsuit, her annual pension benefit will increase from $28,125 per year to $111,755 per year for the rest of her life starting when she turns 55 in 2024. If she lives 20 years, that will amount to nearly $2 million in extra taxpayer-funded pension benefits (including annual cost-of-living adjustments along the way).

Unfortunately, the city attorney is not the only elected official who assumed office after Proposition B took effect but is taking a pension. City employee compensation reports for 2017-2019, which can be found on the city’s website, indicate that taxpayers are funding pensions for at least three other elected officials who assumed office long after voters approved Proposition B.

Every elected official must follow the will of the voters. When voters enact a new law, they rightly expect every elected official to follow and defend the law. The taxpayers shouldn’t have to file lawsuits to get their elected officials to obey the law.

IVP Existence Banner

The voters have spoken – and clearly so. Elected officials in San Diego are not entitled to taxpayer-funded pensions. The hundreds of thousands of dollars wasted each year for politician pensions outlawed more than eight years ago should be put toward parks, libraries, sidewalk and street repairs, public safety, pollution clean-up, and a long list of other municipal priorities.

San Diegans need elected officials who are committed to honoring the will of the voters.

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