Fact Check: A Giant, Roving Misleading Billboard - Voice of San Diego

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Fact Check: A Giant, Roving Misleading Billboard

Here’s a new one: Fact checking a billboard. You’ll have to click through to see.

Statement:

Photo from No on D Facebook page

Image: misleading Determination: Misleading

Analysis: If you’ve gone outside over the past few days, there’s a good chance you’ve seen this giant roving billboard from the anti-Proposition D campaign.

The claim is startling. The annual pension for a four-star general: $149,000. The pension for a San Diego city librarian: $227,000.

The message is clear. A vote for Proposition D’s half-cent sales tax increase funds pensions for book pushers that are 52 percent higher those of our nation’s top military leaders.

The billboard is riddled with problems.

It distorts the career of the librarian in question and the comparison between the two pensions isn’t exactly apples-to-apples. Beyond the stats on the billboard, the comparison leaves out important details about the retirement income for both.

Let’s start with the librarian.

Her name is Anna Tatar and for the last 11 years of her career with the city she wasn’t just shushing patrons and stamping books. Tatar was the city’s library director in charge of the city’s 36 branches and 3.4 million book system until she retired in 2008. Her official title, even as head of the department, was “librarian,” making that part of the billboard accurate, but misleading. It wasn’t just any old librarian as the billboard leads you to believe. No on D campaigners note, correctly, that when they’ve been asked to clarify the librarian’s position they’ve said she was the head of the department.

Tatar’s pension payment in 2009 was $227,249, according to data from the city retirement system. That includes her standard pension and an $85,000 annuity payout from the city’s Deferred Retirement Option Program. Since the DROP payment is a pension benefit, the billboard’s characterization of Tatar’s annual pension is accurate.

Now let’s move to the general. Four-star generals who work 36 years — the same time Tatar worked with the city — earn an annual pension of $168,789, according to a retirement calculator on the Department of Defense website. That’s almost $20,000 higher than the figure quoted on the billboard.

(One caveat here: This number is based on a general retiring in 2010 where Tatar’s pension payment comes from 2009. Todd Harrison, of the nonpartisan Center for Strategic and Budgetary Assessments in Washington D.C., said he didn’t believe there was a cost-of-living adjustment that would have increased pension payouts from those retiring last year. But even if we reduce the general’s pension we found by 6 percent, it’s still higher than the billboard.)

The No on D campaign did not use official military statistics for its figure. They simply googled pensions for four-star generals and found news stories on the recent retirement of former Afghanistan commander Stanley McChrystal, who served for 34 years. Reuters, for example, cited McChrystal’s pension at $12,475 a month. The campaign calculated an annual pension for him.

“McChrystal is probably the most famous four-star general in the country,” said No on D spokeswoman Gayle Falkenthal.

Three other issues beyond the billboard provide vital context for comparing retirement incomes of generals and a city library director.

• First, members of the military don’t contribute anything toward their pensions, meaning taxpayer dollars are on the hook for all of them. Tatar contributed $206,500 to the city retirement system during her career, according to retirement system statistics. Though that’s less than one year of her annual pension payout, the money she paid into the system was invested. The city’s returns on that investment over her 30-plus help pay for her pension now.

• Second, members of the military receive Social Security benefits from the federal government in addition to their pensions. San Diego left the Social Security system in 1982 and Tatar would not receive Social Security benefits from her time with the city.

• Third, No on D supporters have pointed to Tatar potentially receiving an additional 401(k)-style pension payment, which would have come from other contributions from Tatar and matching city contributions. Also, Tatar receives taxpayer-subsidized healthcare benefits for life. Military members have similar plans. They have access to a 401(k)-style pension plan, though I couldn’t figure out on deadline if the military matches for four-star generals. Military members receive taxpayer subsidized healthcare, too.

Here’s a table summarizing key retirement benefits received by a four-star general with 36 years of service and city librarian Anna Tatar:

 

 

The general vs. librarian billboard is taking quite a tour around town. Saturday night, Falkenthal said, it will appear outside pop star Justin Bieber’s concert at the San Diego Sports Arena.

Reporting on the billboard has veered toward hysterics, such as this story from KUSI news this week.

Our definition for a misleading statement is one that has an element of truth and badly distorts it or exaggerates it giving a deceptive impression.

In this case, the only thing entirely accurate on the No on D billboard is the dollar amount of Tatar’s pension.

It doesn’t accurately state a comparable four-star general’s pension and portrays the librarian position improperly. Moreover, other aspects of the retirement payments the general receives don’t make the billboard’s comparison apples-to-apples. For those reasons, the statement fits our definition of misleading.

If you disagree with our determination or analysis, please express your thoughts in the comments section of this blog post. Explain your reasoning.

You can also e-mail new Fact Check suggestions to factcheck@voiceofsandiego.org. What claim should we explore next?

Please contact Liam Dillon directly at liam.dillon@voiceofsandiego.org or 619.550.5663 and follow him on Twitter: twitter.com/dillonliam.

 

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