San Diego Can't Afford to Make the Same Pension Mistakes - Voice of San Diego

Opinion UNVEILING THE UNSEEN

San Diego Can't Afford to Make the Same Pension Mistakes

Creating a long-term liability would not help recruit more dispatchers. It would, however, create new problems for the city.

It is impossible to fully understand San Diego’s financial challenges without understanding how dramatically the pension crisis of the early 2000s altered our course. Back then, bankruptcy was actually considered. Our credit rating was in the tank and city spending on police, fire, parks, libraries and other services was slashed left and right.

I am proud to say I was part of the team that pulled the city back. Thanks to strong leadership, San Diego set a national example for how cities can create and implement pension reform. But our work is not done. We have more to do to solidify our finances and secure our future, and we have to defend the voter-approved reforms that lifted our city out of a financial crisis.

Unfortunately, pension reform is under attack, and this upcoming City Council election is expected to shape the city’s response. Will the Council fight to protect pension reform and the will of the voters, or will it take the city back to a time when San Diego was known as Enron by the Sea?

After the city began to repair the budget under former Mayor Jerry Sanders, I was appointed to serve as a volunteer board member of the San Diego City Employees’ Retirement System. Together, we developed and implemented sound financial and operational reforms that made the pension system more secure for city retirees and employees, and saved taxpayers millions of dollars.

I helped lead the effort to pass Proposition B, the comprehensive pension reform measure that 66 percent of voters approved in 2012. It will save taxpayers $1 billion. That’s money we can use to hire more 911 dispatchers and police officers, fix our roads, maintain our parks, open more libraries and on and on.

Some City Council candidates have said offering pensions would solve problems within the city’s emergency communications center. I disagree. We need to respond to market conditions. That includes boosting pay and offering longevity and related bonuses. New dispatchers already receive a 401k-style plan. Creating a long-term liability would not help recruit more dispatchers. It would, however, create new problems for the city.

We should collaborate with community colleges to develop a certificate program to create a pipeline of trained candidates and reduce training times and costs. We also need to look to our local innovation sector. Companies like Ten8Tech provide technology-based solutions in related areas that could help.

Common-sense solutions do not appear to influence union leaders fighting to undo the pension reforms San Diego voters overwhelmingly adopted. They recently won a favorable decision from the California Public Employee Relations Board, but the board member who drafted the decision was one of the union leaders who campaigned against Prop. B in 2012. The California Court of Appeal now has the case, and I’m confident a fair and unbiased review of the facts would overturn PERB’s decision.

The city hall unions challenging Prop. B know this, too. Earlier this month, attorneys representing the unions sent a letter to the mayor and City Council urging them to water-down or eliminate Prop. B.

“Such a coordinated and cooperative effort will not prejudice the city’s position (with the Court of Appeal) but will promote an earlier final resolution of this controversy, reduce the city’s ‘make-whole’ exposure, and spare the city the risk of greater expense,” the letter reads.

The San Diego County Taxpayers Association urged the mayor and the City Council not to negotiate away voter-approved pension reforms. The San Diego Regional Chamber of Commerce made a similar request.

My track record on this important issue has been consistently strong and I will continue to protect pension reform and the will of the voters.

My opponent, Barbara Bry, has wavered in her commitment of pension reform.

Bry recently said at a candidate forum in La Jolla that she is open to moving some bargaining units back into pensions. You can’t do that without invalidating Prop. B, which is exactly what the city hall unions supporting Bry’s campaign are trying to achieve. They can’t overturn pension reform on their own. They need willing City Council members, and Bry has signaled she would assist them.

I met with these groups and I sought their support, but they chose Bry because they know she is open to weakening pension reform.

Our city is moving forward and pension reform is working. We cannot bend to special interests and take the risk of undoing these critical reforms, which helped pull our city out of a financial crisis.

San Diego cannot afford to elect City Council members who would repeat the mistakes of the past.

Ray Ellis is a community volunteer, small business owner and Carmel Valley resident running for San Diego City Council District 1.

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