Lois Henry

Tuesday, Jul 20 2010 06:10 PM

LOIS HENRY: City's pension reform ballot measure not polling well

By Lois Henry

A poll recently conducted on a ballot measure that would reduce pensions for new city police officers and firefighters shows it losing by 10 points.

That's a pretty good margin of defeat. But I'm still crossing my fingers that it increases by the November election.

No, I'm not a supporter of the so-called 3 at 50 retirement benefit (cops and firefighters can retire at age 50 with up to 3 percent of their last highest salary for each year worked).

I think 3 at 50 has proved to be far too expensive.

I'm against the ballot measure because I think publicly elected officials ought to do their jobs -- like handling employee benefits.

Are they going to come to voters with every pay increase and change to medical benefits too?

This is one of the most basic aspects of their jobs. If they can't do it, as I've said before, they should get out.

It's hard to discern from the poll if voters leaning against the ballot measure are doing so because they also think it's a lame cop out for council members to dump this issue in the public's lap.

Or, maybe they just don't understand it and "no" seems like the safest vote.

Councilman Zack Scrivner, who clearly hopes to build his political career on the platform of "pension reform," spawned the ballot measure.

It would reduce pensions for all new safety employees (cops and firefighters) to 2 percent at age 50 based on average salary averaged over three years before retirement.

It would also have new employees pay 100 percent of their retirement contribution, 9 percent of their salary, into the California Public Employee Retirement System for the entirety of their careers. Right now, the city pays that contribution after five years.

Hey, these are all good ideas.

But the council either needs to bargain in good faith to get them in place, or it needs to cowboy up, declare impasse with both unions, impose conditions and start over.

The city's been at impasse with the cops for some time now, but not fire. As an aside, I wonder how they can legally take this before voters on all public safety employees when fire is still trying to negotiate.

Eh, details schmetails, right? All but two council members, Sue Benham and Irma Carson, voted last month to put the measure on the ballot. If passed, it would go into effect next January.

The poll, conducted by EMC Research on behalf of the city police and fire unions, found that 35 percent of 500 Bakersfield city residents polled would vote for the measure.

A healthy 45 percent would vote against it and 19 percent didn't know how they'd vote.

Pollsters also asked if the voters felt the measure would increase or decrease pensions or if they didn't know what the measure would do.

Thirty-eight percent of those polled answered correctly that the measure would decrease benefits, 14 percent thought it would increase benefits and a whopping 47 percent didn't know.

Hmmm...and our city council members think the best way to work out complex benefits issues is by tossing it to a populous that's either too busy or distracted to understand the issues?

"Most people aren't as engaged in this issue as firefighters are," said Councilman David Couch, who was not surprised by the level of undecideds and those who didn't know what the measure would do.

Scrivner said he'd have to know a lot more about the poll and how it was conducted before passing judgment on the numbers.

So far the "yes" on measure no-name (it still doesn't have a letter assigned from County Elections) camp hasn't decided to run its own poll. There isn't even a committee yet, Scrivner said.

Though he's been accused numerous times of fanning the flames of pension reform for political gain and he is, coincidentally, running for county supervisor, he said nothing could be further from the truth.

It would be easier to just "kick this can down the road and let someone else handle it.

"But that's not what I'm here to do."

Apparently, the nitty gritty work of hammering out mutual solutions with employee groups isn't on the ol' "to do" list either.

Opinions expressed in this column are those of Lois Henry, not The Bakersfield Californian. Her column appears Wednesdays and Sundays.Comment at people.bakersfield.com/home/Blog/noholdsbarred, call her at 395-7373 or e-mail lhenry@bakersfield.com

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