Compromise pension reform measure aimed at June 2012 ballot

By James R. RIffel

City News Service

San Diego politicians and business leaders on Tuesday announced a pension reform measure for the June 2012 ballot that could make San Diego a national battleground over municipal retirement benefits.

If approved, all new city employees except police officers would be provided with a retirement plan similar to a 401 (k) account, Mayor Jerry Sanders said.

Payments into the retirement plan would be tied to the employee's base salary, and a five-year cap would be placed on "pensionable" pay. The measure also is crafted to prevent unions from blocking reforms if approved by a majority vote of members and will ensure the city does not have to contribute more money toward retirement than a recipient worker.

The "legally defensible" measure will "halt runaway pension costs," Sanders said. "All in all, I think this initiative will solve our pension problems."

The retirement system for city employees is about $2 billion in the red, according to recent estimates.

Supporters figure the provisions of the measure could save $41 million in the year it is implemented and nearly $363 million over a five-year period.

The initiative's provisions will not take away the vested benefits of city workers, City Attorney Jan Goldsmith said.

The measure is a compromise between two previously competing proposals coming from government officials and business leaders.

"This initiative won't just fix the pension system but will transform it into a national model," Sanders said.

Councilman Carl DeMaio said the campaign to pass the initiative could attract national attention of the sort focused in the past couple of months in Wisconsin and Ohio, turning San Diego into "a national battleground."

"That's why we had to come together as a team, getting all the reformers together,'' he said.

Frank De Clercq, president of the firefighters union, angrily called the measure a mistake that would result in an "enormous problem" for the city to retain firefighters.

"They're trying to attack people who will give their lives for this city," he said.

He questioned handling firefighters and police officers differently when they respond to many of the same calls.

Sanders and Councilman Kevin Faulconer said they supported giving traditional pension benefits to newly hired firefighters and lifeguards, as well as police officers. However, they had give some to achieve a compromise.

Both said they would make sure that, in exchange, firefighters and lifeguards have full death and disability benefits.

According to Sanders, the city has a big problem recruiting and retaining police officers, but not firefighters.

The five-year cap on pensionable pay means that employees can receive raises during that period, but the extra money won't be counted in the future when calculating pension benefits. Similarly, tying benefits to a base salary means that certain payments on top of normal compensation also will not be counted.

Supporters of the measure, which include the business-oriented Lincoln Club of San Diego and the San Diego County Taxpayers Association, will have six months to gather the signatures needed to put the measure on the ballot.

   
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