I am planning on reading Steve Erie and Vlad Kogan’s book “Paradise Plundered” as soon as I get a chance. I’m practically its target audience embodied. But for now, I have to make do with discussions like this interesting exchange between Erie and our own Liam Dillon. Quite a back and forth is also brewing in the comments on the article.

Erie, a professor at the University of California, San Diego, made the argument very clearly that he believes the city of San Diego’s financial crisis and therefore its deteriorating facilities, roads and amenities is due to “inadequate revenues.”

That’s not really a stretch. Obviously, the revenues are inadequate to cover the expenses. That’s what a deficit is. As we all know, the city is not set up to take in as much money as it is set up to spend and pay out in benefits.

Now, what you propose to do to fix that is the question.

Dillon asked Erie how he’s leaning in the major decision of the moment:


We Stand Up for You. Will You Stand Up for Us?

Of any of the four major candidates for mayor, do you think any of them are in any way in a position to reverse some of the trends that you’ve talked about?

I think Bob Filner is more positioned to reverse some of these trends than the others.

Why’s that?

He would probably find ways to raise revenues. He opposes this comprehensive (pension) reform act, which at this point given the public polling is kind of a courageous thing.

Courageous!

The most impactful part of the pension reform initiative is not the switch to a 401(k) for future employees. Future employees have been dealt with. The most impactful part of the plan for those who care about city services is the proposed five-year freeze of the “pensionable pay” city workers earn. This would save the city millions as its pension bill assumes a regular increase in salaries.

Filner opposes this, as he explained to me on the radio. “A freeze on salaries is unfair,” he said.

If, in order to restore and protect city services, you do not support cuts or employee sacrifices, it’s incumbent on you to lay out an alternative.

Erie suggests Filner will turn to “revenue” and reverse these inherently San Diego trends the professor describes.

But if Filner’s courageous on opposing this ballot initiative, he’s not about supporting higher taxes. If he agrees that San Diegans should pay more for services they demand, he’s not saying it.

He has released only talking points on a financial plan for the city. He would cap pensions at $125,000 per year (but this would only affect future employees, not any currently at work). Except that he says he’s not sure $125,000 is the right number.

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And he wants to lengthen the period of time the city’s allowed to close its pension shortfall. A quick history, the city used to have a so-called “rolling” 30-year pension payoff plan. But the scheme, unlike a conventional mortgage, actually makes it possible for the pension’s shortfall to get worse, not get balanced.

So voters in 2004 passed Proposition G, which required the pension system to calculate the debt payoff over 15 years and force the city to make payments accordingly. The city’s retirement system said this was an illegal encroachment on its turf and rebuffed the law, settling on a 20-year plan instead.

Filner wants to move this to a 30-year plan again, effectively pushing the pension debt off further into the future.

As he told me it would “free up the assets of this city without raising taxes.”

There are three things wrong with this:

1) Filner, even if elected, would have no say on it. Sure the mayor has a bully pulpit, but the city’s retirement fund is quite accustomed to ignoring said pulpit, and it quite clearly has the say on how the system is funded.

2) It’s not clear the move would save much. As Erie’s co-author said the other day, the move “would provide minimal savings given the interest rate.” The pension fund assumes it will grow 7.75 percent every year. If you push off the city’s contribution to the fund, the debt grows and the system loses out on what it would have earned.

3) It doesn’t correct any wrong or provide the citizens with the kind of confidence Filner says they need to support major collective initiatives in the city. It’s an accounting gimmick and risk manipulation.

Oh well, it’s not really a plan yet anyway. Filner told me on the radio he was still working on the specifics. That was Sept. 16.

“It’s being run through accountants and actuaries and we hope to have an answer soon,” he said.

I used to think Filner would provide a stark progressive alternative to the encyclopedic and well-organized recovery plan City Councilman Carl DeMaio is promoting across the city. And many liberals in town, like Erie, obviously assume he has one.

I don’t blame a mayoral aspirant for being unwilling to say the city needs to raise taxes. But until he does, Erie and other supporters can’t pretend he is somehow more courageous in how he would approach the city’s most pressing polemic.

I’m Scott Lewis, the CEO of voiceofsandiego.org. Please contact me if you’d like at scott.lewis@voiceofsandiego.org or 619.325.0527 and follow me on Twitter (it’s a blast!):

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    This article relates to: Elections, Government, Mayor 2012, News, Opinion, Politics, Scott Lewis on Politics

    Written by Scott Lewis

    Scott Lewis oversees Voice of San Diego’s operations, website and daily functions as Editor in Chief. He also writes about local politics, where he frequently breaks news and goes back and forth with local political figures. Contact Scott at scott.lewis@voiceofsandiego.org or 619.325.0527, and follow him on Twitter at @vosdscott.

    17 comments
    Diane Edge
    Diane Edge subscribermember

    My any metric, the RNC San Diego Convention was a waste of money. We have nothing to show for it but memories of a big fireworks display. We were silly and short-sighted. Nothing to be overly proud of. All this for Bob Dole? Let's get serious folks.

    d2voice
    d2voice

    My any metric, the RNC San Diego Convention was a waste of money. We have nothing to show for it but memories of a big fireworks display. We were silly and short-sighted. Nothing to be overly proud of. All this for Bob Dole? Let's get serious folks.

    Frances O'Neill Zimmerman
    Frances O'Neill Zimmerman

    As a moderate political person, you may not have cheered that San Diego Republican Convention, but I remember it as a veritable Super Bowl of smug excess and extravagance with Young Republicans flooding the streets of La Jolla, protesters penned far away from Convention venues and the Copley Press hosting grand closed events harborside.

    Bill Bradshaw
    Bill Bradshaw subscribermember

    It’s always beneficial to remind people that San Diego’s mess isn’t unique. Public employee unions, particularly in California, have been extremely successful in escalating pay and particularly benefits way beyond the private sector, with the willing complicity of politicians looking for campaign money and precinct workers. California, like Illinois, is in much worse shape than Ohio, Wisconsin, New Jersey, and indiana, but these states are the ones attacking the problem. We should look to their successes, hard fought as as they are, for a potential solution. Taxes won’t do it.

    toulon
    toulon

    It’s always beneficial to remind people that San Diego’s mess isn’t unique. Public employee unions, particularly in California, have been extremely successful in escalating pay and particularly benefits way beyond the private sector, with the willing complicity of politicians looking for campaign money and precinct workers. California, like Illinois, is in much worse shape than Ohio, Wisconsin, New Jersey, and indiana, but these states are the ones attacking the problem. We should look to their successes, hard fought as as they are, for a potential solution. Taxes won’t do it.

    Mark Giffin
    Mark Giffin subscribermember

    Bob. If you don't care for someones viewpoint or presentation then ignore the post.

    mgland
    mgland

    Bob. If you don't care for someones viewpoint or presentation then ignore the post.

    Mark Giffin
    Mark Giffin subscribermember

    So the stimulus did prop up the economy but did not really add jobs where they are needed.....the private sector

    mgland
    mgland

    So the stimulus did prop up the economy but did not really add jobs where they are needed.....the private sector

    Vlad Kogan
    Vlad Kogan subscriber

    Finally, I'd like to see some evidence that the stimulus has been an "abject failure." While it's true that unemployment is higher today than anyone expected, this is largely because the economic slump has been far more serious than anyone expected. We don't get to observe the counterfactual -- what unemployment WOULD HAVE been had the stimulus package not been passed. Most respected economists -- from the left, right, and center -- will tell you that unemployment would be much higher today in a world without the stimulus. That's far from an abject failure.

    vkogan
    vkogan

    Finally, I'd like to see some evidence that the stimulus has been an "abject failure." While it's true that unemployment is higher today than anyone expected, this is largely because the economic slump has been far more serious than anyone expected. We don't get to observe the counterfactual -- what unemployment WOULD HAVE been had the stimulus package not been passed. Most respected economists -- from the left, right, and center -- will tell you that unemployment would be much higher today in a world without the stimulus. That's far from an abject failure.

    John Gordon
    John Gordon subscriber

    If you want dialogue, then promote it, Scott !

    jagsd01
    jagsd01

    If you want dialogue, then promote it, Scott !

    Don Wood
    Don Wood subscriber

    We have a revenue AND a spending problem. You don't get public services for nothing.

    Don Wood
    Don Wood

    We have a revenue AND a spending problem. You don't get public services for nothing.