If local elected officials wrote to San Jose Mayor Chuck Reed encouraging him to move forward with plans to give cities and counties relief from the withering burden of retirement debt, most readers probably wouldn't be surprised.
After all, even with the economy rebounding and Wall Street soaring, retirement costs continue to chip away at municipal services while threatening the solvency of many public agencies.
Unfortunately, that's not what happened. Instead, as reported, four Sonoma County elected officials — Supervisor Mike McGuire, Santa Rosa Mayor Scott Bartley and Vice Mayor Erin Carlstrom and Healdsburg Vice Mayor Jim Wood — signed a Nov. 26 letter opposing Reed's plans for a statewide pension-relief ballot measure.
This raises the all-important question: What were they thinking?
There's no question that Sonoma County and the cities of Healdsburg and Santa Rosa would benefit significantly from the measure that Reed has in mind. Sonoma County's unfunded pension liability — the difference between what it has set aside and what it has promised to employees in retirement — totals $527 million. The county's contributions to the retirement fund have risen 400 percent since 2000. And in May, supervisors were told that, even though pensions funds were performing better and that the county had taken some steps to lower taxpayer pension costs, the county's overall payments are going to increase 25 percent more over the next three years.
This prompted Supervisor David Rabbit to note the obvious, “It's going to get worse before it gets better.”
Santa Rosa has fared no better. At last count, the city was behind some $127.5 million in setting aside money to meet its long-term commitments. And the city's costs also are expected to continue climbing. This means more pressure to raise fees on recreational programs, cut park maintenance and make other service reductions.