This coming Tuesday, voters will decide on Measure G, which would reduce the pensions of police officers and firefighters hired after July 1.
After 20 years on the job, they would only get 40 percent of their highest salary instead of 50 percent, would have to contribute 9 percent to the pension fund instead of 8 percent and would have to contribute about 2 percent of their salary to the health care fund, the first time they've had to contribute to health care.
Current police and fire union leaders say they like this plan. This may not be surprising, as the plan wouldn't affect their current members at all.
Paul Weber with the Los Angeles Police Protective League says police are making a contribution to fix the city's financial deficit and realize sacrifices have to be made. However, Measure G doesn't prompt any sacrifices by current police officers or firefighters.
L.A. City Council members are often influenced by powerful unions at City Hall, but the L.A. Chamber of Commerce says that Measure G is too modest. They want further reductions in pensions for police and firefighters. The Chamber still supports Measure G as a first step in that direction.
L.A. Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa helped put Measure G on the ballot. It's a modest step by everybody's admission. Yesterday, the mayor took further steps, proposing that the retirement age for all civilian employees at City Hall (about 25,000-30,000 people) be raised from 55 to 65 years old, as well as lowering the maximum amount civilians could get in retirement.
City leaders throughout Southern California are saying we need to make these adjustments in pensions. It's a big issue for a number of reasons, with pensions losing money on Wall Street, people living longer and cities perhaps giving too generously in the past.
Unions are concerned about raising the retirement age and losing the deal they've always understood. In the past, if you went to work for the government, you may not make as high a salary, but you would receive a good pension and health care benefits.
The city's unions say they are open to negotiations with the mayor and the city, but worry that the mayor will try to impose these changes on them without going through collective bargaining. It's possible that, due to pensions being government by pension boards, the mayor could say this doesn't need to go through collective bargaining, but there's been no indication of that yet.
The debate has shifted dramatically. A few years ago, unions likely wouldn't have considered changes in pensions or freezing raises. Unions are seeing the situation differently now that cities are hard hit by recession, with taxes way down and pensions hit hard.
Mayor Villaraigosa is a former union organizer.
L.A. County hasn't been as generous when it comes to pensions, both for civilians and for public employees including firefighters and the Sheriff's Department. Decades ago, they didn't raise pensions during good times as L.A. and many other cities did.
L.A. County has been smarter with some of their investments. While there may be the impression that every city and county has mismanaged pensions and been too generous, in L.A. County, that's not the case.
Measure G is on Los Angeles ballots next Tuesday.
- Frank Stoltze, Madeleine Brand & Mike Roe