San Francisco Public Defender Jeff Adachi was among several local and state officials who attended a panel discussion in the city this morning on the problems facing the pension system for public employees.
The discussion, hosted by the Bay Area Council, a business-sponsored public policy group based in San Francisco, brought together people on both sides of the pension issue, which is causing ballooning budget deficits at both the state and local levels.
“This is not a system that is sustainable,” Adachi said.
He said one out of every seven dollars in San Francisco’s budget goes toward pensions and benefits, and that could rise to one out of every four dollars in the next five years.
The city has a total of $4.3 billion in unfunded benefits owed to city employees, and faces a budget deficit of about $380 million for the next fiscal year, largely due to the pensions, he said.
San Francisco city employees currently do not pay toward their pension and get free health benefits, he said.
Adachi placed a measure, Proposition B, on last November’s ballot that would have had employees contribute to their benefits, but it was rejected by about 58 percent of the city’s voters.
He said labor unions spend millions of dollars to help defeat the measure, but said he plans to get another measure on this November’s ballot with a few changes, including exemptions for low-income workers.
“Next time we’ll make sure to have a better campaign” and a measure that “is fair to employees but at the same time realizes the cost savings we need to have,” Adachi said.
Dave Low, the chairman for Californians for Health Care and Retirement Security, a coalition of public sector employees, said that demonizing government workers isn’t productive.
“I don’t think that’s a healthy discussion,” Low said. “Employees are not denying there’s a problem here…we’re trying to be part of the solution, even though we didn’t cause the problem.”
Joe Nation, a former state assemblyman from the North Bay who is now a professor of public policy at Stanford University, said the pension issue is a simple problem of mathematics.
“What is the dirtiest four letter word in politics? It’s math,” Nation said. “This is not a problem of labor or management or benefits, it’s a math problem, and I think as long as we can keep the focus on this as a math problem, we can solve it.”
Adachi said more and more people are talking about pension reform even though “it isn’t a sexy issue … and most people in the private sector don’t even have pensions.”
But he said people are realizing the rising deficits are causing drastic cuts in state and local services and think something should be done.
“The reality is if you care about all of the things that have made America what it is today, whether it’s education, whether it’s our great expanse of parks, the way we provide services to seniors … if you care about those things, then you have to care about this issue,” Adachi said.
He said following this morning’s event that he enjoyed the discussion “because we had a lot of divergent perspectives presented.”
Adachi said, “I thought what was significant was that everyone sees that there’s a huge problem that needs to be addressed, but the question is how do we fix it?”
Dan McMenamin, Bay City News