April, 21, 2014
Mayoral candidate Pat Furey, a county employee retiring within days with a public pension, slammed the “pension envy” he hears from workers in the private sector who question the generous wages and benefits paid to police officers. (The Daily Breeze)
Creating a new psychological (or psychoanalytic?) disorder, Torrance Councilmember and mayoral candidate Patrick Furey unleashed his fury on private sector employees who criticize the massive pension payouts of public employee..
For the record, many Torrance residents, and likely voters, are private sector employees and small business owners. Still, why would anyone feel “pension envy”?
A growing number of Torrance public safety officers make more than one hundred thousand dollars a year, then take 90% of their salary upon retirement. One retired officer shared with me that the pension formulas shifted in the 1990s, and while he funded his retirement adequately, so that his disbursements would not undermine the pension fund. Another public worker, in Rhode Island, invested his retirement through a private system, so that he would be neither gouging his constituents nor jeopardizing his future.
Pension funding is a serious issue, nonetheless.
Four California cities have gone bankrupt because of unsustainable pension obligations to retired employees. Statewide stats affirm that eighty percent of public school revenues fund retirement pensions and benefits, as well. Cities should serve residents, and schools are supposed to serve students, providing a safe environment to live and thrive. Yet most cities may not survive the liabilities laid upon them because of generous contracts negotiated between public employee unions and prior city councils. Who will protect us from our protectors, indeed?
Instead of “pension envy”, perhaps the proper term should be pension outrage, or entitled entitlement exasperation. El Segundo has had few fires or deaths, and yet the Police Chief is on track to take home nearly $200,000 a year in pensions. In Lawndale, Centinela Valley Union High School District Superintendent Jose Fernandez negotiated a lucrative contract with a compliant school board, which offered to him a base pay near equal to the LAUSD Superintendent, in spite of the fact that he supervises a district one hundredth the size of LAUSD. The perks and pension “air time” offered to the superintendent vaulted his 2013 salary to $663,000. Hermosa Beach parking enforcers make a minimum of $53,000 a year, yet Hermosa Beach’s sewer system needs to be revamped.
And now to Torrance, CA. The Wall Street Journal featured the largest South Bay city in a list of municipalities with overwhelming pension liabilities -- $392,000,000to be precise. Torrance’s Finance Director Eric Tsao disputed the accounting in a Letter to the Editor, arguing that the city’s current expenditures only total 12% toward pensions. Yet percentages can be misleading, as they hide the real costs of pension liabilities, just as California Governor Jerry Brown could declared “We have balanced the budget!” while ignored the enormous wall of debt from public employee benefits.
True, safety officers risk their lives, and in the past they did not survive five years past retirement. Yet today, more public safety employees do live and thrive for decades after leaving the work force, thus placing massive demand on municipalities and taxpayers to fund their pensions.
Pension reform is a necessity for good fiscal health.
Can Furey of “pension envy” fame bring this reform? He is a public employee, also, but so is fellow challenger Tom Brewer. However, Furey just garnered the Torrance Police Officers Association endorsement, and they have $170,000 in PAC money on hand to promote their candidate. No wonder Fury is in flurry to defend current pension obligations.
Despite their financial leverage, California’s public sector unions have endured more losses than wins lately, starting with San Jose and San Diego, where 70% voting majorities endorsed comprehensive pension reforms in 2011-2012. In 2014, Republican Kevin Faulconer won the special election mayoral race in San Diego, as well, despite ten-to-one outside money from union endorsements.
Despite Councilmember Furey’s fury about pension envy, the frustration about unfunded liabilities is not a disease, but rather a symptom of residential outrage, as voters are fed up with city leaders who accommodate present employees and retirees at the cost of current as well as future residents. Crime is up throughout California, and Governor Brown’s realignment has not helped, but a city which spends more money on retired police rather than clear and present law enforcement needs to shift its priorities.
With the most comprehensive turn-around in city leadership coming to pass in the city’s history, Torrance needs representatives who will not just discuss but enact and enforce comprehensive pension reforms, respecting the needs of current and future retirees, while also ensuring that the bulk of city funding funds city needs, not over-generous pension and benefits guaranteed in lucrative contracts signed by temporal city leaders into place without keen foresight or deep regard for foreseeable economic challenges.
Torrance faces a crumbling infrastructure, including potholes and rising need for parks and recreations restoration. Resident's tax money should go toward renewing and revamping the city’s public works, which serve all residents, rather than exclusively sustaining pension obligations for employees no longer working for the city.
Arthur Christopher Schaper is a teacher-turned-writer on topics both timeless and timely; political, cultural, and eternal. A life-long Southern California resident, Arthur currently lives in Torrance.
Twitter -- @ArthurCSchaper