Friday, March 25, 2011

Dirty Harry Assigned to Desk Duty? Retirement Round 2

My post from this past Monday in which I took News-Press guest editorial writer Lanny Ebenstein to task for playing "fast and loose" with the facts about public employee pensions got quite a response in the form of emails from readers. And one of those responding was Ebenstein himself.

His email to me was lengthy and detailed in his effort to try to persuade me to see things his way. Among the points he made were that, "Pensions are the biggest problem with public employee compensation in the state now." Well, no one can deny that pension costs have become an expensive item in government budgets. It is a problem that must be addressed but the question is how should it be addressed. I'll have a little more on that later.

Ebenstein agreed with me that cops and firefighters shouldn't be chasing criminals or fighting fires when they are in their 50's and 60's. But he did say, "I note that there are many functions that public safety employees can perform in their late 50s and early 60s that don't require the physical agility of younger officers." That may be true, but is it really fair to require someone who has worked the streets for 30 years has to finish their career working in the evidence room?

My own experience is that people who sign-up to be police officers want to do police work. What comes to mind is the response of Clint Eastwood's character in one of the early "Dirty Harry" movies when he is told that he is being assigned to personnel. "Personnel?," Inspector Callahan snarls. "That's for assholes!" Now, don't get me wrong. I've known a lot of fine people over the years who have worked in personnel. But I don't want my human resource officers toting guns and I don't want my police officers pushing paper. If someone puts in 30 years fighting crime or putting out fires their reward shouldn't be an assignment to the clerical detail. They earned it, let 'em retire!

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Ebenstein goes on to say, "I don't want to see public funds going to retired public employees in their 50s--I want to see these funds go to services or to lower taxes. " But I say, if they earned it by putting in 30 years of service what difference does their age make? Someone who starts their police career at 35 and puts in 30 years of service gets to retire, but someone who started at 25 and put in that same 30 years doesn't?

My problem with Ebensteins's position is that in focusing only on the age at which public employees are first eligible to retire, he is ignoring the other half of the equation that is factored in to determine retirement benefits. While there are numerous references in his editorial to the fact that some public employees can retire in their mid fifties there was not one mention of how many years of service are necessary in order to receive the type of pension that one could actually retire upon. In other words, it's not only the years, it's the miles. Kind of like a used car.

Sure, in some instances a county employee who is 50-years old can retire with as little as 10 years of service. But that wouldn't yield much of a monthly retirement income.

While some readers may be outraged when they read that there are public employees who are retiring in their fifties and will be receiving 90 percent of their salary for the rest of their lives, I'm sure a lot, if not all, of that outrage would be tempered if it were pointed out that in order to receive that particular benefit the employee had put in 30 or more years of service.

And of course the general members of the retirement system, that is the public employees who are not law enforcement officers or firefighters, have to put in even more years of service to be able to retire with 90 percent of their salary.

As far as changing the public employment retirement scheme in the future, I would say the starting point is to remember that California's two major retirement plans for public employees, The 1937 Retirement Act, (of which Santa Barbara County is a member) and CALPERS weren't enacted in the heat of passion. These retirement plans were the result of bargaining, negotiation, hearings and deliberation.

Any changes in the system ought to come about in the same way the retirement plans were enacted: after bargaining and negotiation with the representatives of the public employees rather than some populist outcry based on misconception and only half the facts regarding how the system works.
© 2011 by Craig Smith and