Measure G is modest reform of LA city pensions

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Next Tuesday, Los Angeles city voters consider whether to roll back retirement benefits for new police officers and firefighters. If the approve it, Measure G would be L.A.’s first stab at reining in the growing cost of pensions and health care for retired city workers.

A few years ago, you’d have been hard pressed to hear a member of the LA City Council – especially a Democratic one – say this:

“We may have been a city that made their pensions a little too generous to be sustainable," says Councilman Paul Koretz, a longtime union ally.

With pension and retiree health care costs soaring, Koretz's view has become common at City Hall.

That’s why the mayor and Council placed Measure G on the ballot. It would reduce the pensions of cops and firefighters who spend 20 years on the job from 50 percent to 40 percent of their salary.

It would also require them to contribute 2 percent of their salary to retiree health care. They contribute nothing now. The plan would apply only to new hires.

“I think it’s a reasonable compromise," Koretz says.

Critics say L.A. would still be too generous to its retired police officers and firefighters.

Gary Toebben, who heads the L.A. Area Chamber of Commerce, says that public safety employees who spend 33 years on the job would still get 90 percent of their salary. He argues that 75 percent would be more reasonable.

"We do not think that this plan goes nearly far enough to have much of an impact on the budget for a long time," Toebben says.

The chamber still supports Measure G, saying that it’s a "good start" on pension reform.

The labor unions that represent police officers and firefighters also support Measure G – perhaps because it doesn’t affect their current members.

“I think police officers realize that there has been a significant downturn in the economy and it’s incumbent on all of us to help make up the difference," says Paul Weber of the Police Protective League.

L.A.'s City Administrative Officer Miguel Santana says Measure G would save the city $152 million over 10 years. That’s good, he says, but few of the savings would kick in next year when L.A. faces a $350 million deficit.

Santana says what the city really needs to do is compel its 35,000 or so current police officers and firefighters, as well as its civilian employees, to start contributing to their retiree health care plans.

Santana says union leaders have resisted that.

“We’re one of the few jurisdictions throughout the state that actually provides retiree health care benefits for the individual and their spouse – and employees don’t contribute anything for it if they’ve been here 20 years, which most of our workforce has," says Santana.

While Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa and the City Council say they strongly support Measure G, they haven't campaigned much for it.

Supporters are still confident it will pass. They argue polls show that voters want pension reform, even if it’s modest – and Measure G faces no organized opposition.