Monday, October 10, 2011
By Ed Mendel

Unions and management in San Jose have bargaining proposals aimed at making a rare triple play in public pension reform — big cost cuts, done quickly and without a legal battle.

Current workers would be given the option of switching to lower pensions.

It sounds simple enough, but city staff says there are two major problems: How many workers would take the low-cost option? Would the IRS continue to allow pre-tax pension contributions?

San Jose is on the front line of pension reform. The state’s third largest city, located in Silicon Valley, has had budget shortfalls for 11 years in a row, cut 2,000 staff positions, laid off 66 young police officers this year and given staff a 10 percent pay cut.

The general fund, facing another deficit, is expected to have revenue of $801 million this year. The city retirement costs, $73 million in 2002, have more than tripled to $245 million now and are projected to reach $430 million by 2015.

“Skyrocketing retirement costs are destroying our ability to provide basic services,“ Mayor Chuck Reed said in a news release last month responding to an option-based proposal from police and firefighter unions and three of nine non-safety bargaining units.

“Reforms are needed to break the never-ending cycle of budget cuts and restore essential services like police patrol, fire response, street maintenance, libraries and community centers,” he said.

Reed and the city council delayed action in June on a ballot measure that would cut the pensions promised current workers. If approved by voters, the measure could trigger an important court test.

The courts are said to have ruled that pensions promised on the date of hire are “vested” rights protected by contract law and can’t be cut. But the Little Hoover Commission and others say the rulings, some predating collective bargaining, should be revisited.

As in the private sector, the argument goes, governments should be able to control costs by cutting pensions earned by current workers in the future, without cutting pension amounts already earned through years on the job.

The standard bargaining “givebacks” are inadequate for governments in deep financial trouble. Raising employee pension contributions does not save enough, and giving new hires lower pensions can take decades to yield significant savings.

So in this view, cutting the pensions of current workers is the only way back to solvency.

Reed’s original proposal would cap city contributions for future pensions at 9 percent of pay. Current workers could choose to earn lower pensions in the future or pay more to continue earning the previous pension amount.

Current worker pensions would be cut in a different way under a proposed initiative in another pension-troubled city, San Diego. The “pensionable” pay used to determine pension amounts would be frozen for five years, a method also likely to trigger a court test.

Councilman Carl DeMaio and others submitted signatures to place an initiative on the June ballot in the state’s second largest city that also would switch all new hires, except police, to a 401(k)-style individual investment plan.

In San Jose, giving current workers the option of switching to lower pensions was suggested by firefighters in February. Firefighters, police and three other bargaining units hired an actuary, Thomas Lowman, and proposed an option plan late last month.

City staff proposed an option plan, following council directions in June. An update last week from Alex Gurza, deputy city manager, raises questions about a union claim that their proposals would save the city $467 million over five years.

San Jose has two retirement systems. The unions assume that the low-cost pension option would be chosen by all members of the nine bargaining units in the non-sworn “Federated“ system, if given unspecified incentives.

The incentive in the city’s option plan is a hammer: much higher employee pension contributions for those who do not choose the lower pension. Other incentives mentioned but not proposed are sweeteners: lower employee contributions or higher wages.

In the “Police and Fire” system, unions assume that 66 percent of the members would opt for lower pensions. Management of the lower pensions chosen by current members and given new hires would be switched from the city to CalPERS.

The employee contribution in CalPERS police and fire plans is 9 percent of pay, which would be increased to 10 percent in the union proposal. Gurza said that’s less than the employee contribution in the city system.

The California Public Employees Retirement System has some experience with option plans.

In 1984 legislation gave most state workers the option of switching to a lower pension. Instead of “2 at 60” (2 percent of final pay for each year served age 60) they would drop to “1.25 at 65.”

To read entire column, click here.