By PAUL GULLIXSON
I’ve never been on a runaway train. But listening in on the Santa Rosa City Council meeting Tuesday, I got a sense of what it must feel like.
To make matters worse, it sounded as if the conductor (the City Council) came on the loudspeaker and said, “Ladies and gentleman, we regret to tell you that this train is not only out of control, we are unable by law to stop it. We are, however, pleased to report that, after much negotiation, we’ve managed to reduce the rate of the train’s acceleration. We see this as a hopeful step that sets the stage for more progress when we revisit this issue again in two years.”
And, with that, the City Council on a 4-3 vote approved a two-year labor contact with Santa Rosa police that the city knows it can’t afford.
Yes, that is an oversimplification of what happened. Yes, the police union made concessions and, as recent stories and editorials have described, the city stands to save $685,000 over the next two years under this contract. But given that Santa Rosa is $112 million in the red in meeting its retirement obligations, it’s a penny on the railroad tracks. It may provide someone with a memento, but it will slow nothing.
Moreover, it doesn’t even keep pace with the city’s mounting pension debt. On March 14, CalPERS downgraded its financial forecast, meaning Santa Rosa will have to ante up $1.3 million to $1.7 million more toward retirement obligations over the next two years and each year after that.
In essence, by approving this contract, the City Council is conceding that the coming years will be more of the same for residents — more cuts in services, more fee increases, more scrimping and saving to feed a pension organism that’s looking more and more like something out of “Little Shop of Horrors.”
Want to know why funding for city parks is down $4 million since 2007 and why Santa Rosa now lacks the funds it needs to address vandalism, deferred maintenance and safety issues at parks? Wonder why the city doesn’t have the $350,000 needed to fix its building at Benton and North streets and, as a result, is evicting the FISH food pantry, which has been serving needy families for 17 years? You can hear the reason why. It’s crying, “Feed me, Seymour.”
The city’s pension costs have increased from $4 million in 2003 to $26.4 million last year. And that’s only going up.
“We can’t solve 20 years of negotiation with this single contract,” said Vice Mayor John Sawyer. He said the police union gave the city “what we asked for.”
Of course, he’s right. But this raises the question, did the city ask enough? Moreover, why is the city afraid to just say “no?”
The short answer is because city officials fear it will force a legal battle they can’t win. The reason is California courts have gone so far as to rule that public employees not only have a right to benefits they have accrued, but they also have a vested right to what they are going to accrue. It defies common sense, but there it is.
Of course, cities may unilaterally — and even retroactively — increase benefits, much as they did a decade ago, when in a breathtaking act of irresponsibility, city officials followed the lead of the state Legislature and many other government agencies over a cliff — giving employees what amounted to a 50 percent increase in their pensions for life. (Note: They were egged on at the time by labor unions and CalPERS who convinced legislators that pension portfolios were flush and any additional cost would be minuscule. They were wrong to the tune of billions.)
There is an out, however. The U.S. and California Supreme Courts have ruled that these contracts may be altered if it is “reasonable and necessary to serve an important public interest.” But to date, that exemption hasn’t been tested.
The situation in Vallejo presented the best opportunity to do so, but it wasn’t. Why? As a recent story in the New York Times reported, because CalPERS threatened to sue if Vallejo pursued it. And a city, especially a bankrupt one, doesn’t take on an institution with $240 billion in assets lightly. Thus, Vallejo went through its entire fiscal crisis without missing a CalPERS payment. And public safety officers there, as in Santa Rosa, are still able to retire at age 50 with pensions worth 90 percent of their final salary. It’s insane.
CalPERS last year issued a 20-page legal opinion which essentially warned all cities against trying to do something so foolish as to try and reduce pensions even in a fiscal crisis. It also spelled out the arguments for why a ballot initiative would be futile. In short, CalPERS has the state over a barrel and wants to keep it there.
In an editorial last week, we challenged the City Council to stand up and do the unthinkable and vote no on this contract — to pull the cord and try to stop this train. To do so would, no doubt, cause all sorts of bedlam. It may even cost the city more in the long run. But at least residents would know that someone was willing to put up a fight.
Right now, it feels like we’re not just rolling along, we’re rolling over.
Paul Gullixson is editorial director of The Press Democrat. Email him at email@example.com or call him at 707-521-5282.