Local News

Saturday, Jan 30 2010 12:00 PM

Bakersfield voters to choose pension outcome?

BY GRETCHEN WENNER, Californian staff writer gwenner@bakersfield.com

If Zack Scrivner and David Couch prevail, Bakersfield residents will vote June 8 on whether to reduce pension benefits for new city employees.

Scrivner, the city councilmember running for county supervisor, told city staff to draft language for a such a ballot measure at the end of Wednesday night's long council meeting.

Couch, who is weighing a run for state Assembly, then asked staff to come up with language for a similar proposition that reduced pensions through different means.

But Scrivner and Couch aren't necessarily at odds, it turns out. On Thursday, both spoke positively of the other's ideas and expressed a willingness to work together.

A union representative called the move political showboating.

The topic of pension reform is already afloat in California -- the economic downturn kicked it from the sidelines to center stage -- but Scrivner said he doesn't want to wait on Sacramento or for a possible state ballot initiative.

"The sooner this change goes into effect, the sooner the city beings to realize cost savings," Scrivner said Thursday.

He wants new city police and fire staffers -- so-called "safety" employees -- to have pensions rolled back to earlier levels. The 2-at-50 formula Scrivner requested would pay 2 percent of salary for every year worked, up to 60 percent of salary, with retirement as early as age 50.

The city's safety employees now have a generous 3-at-50 plan that provides up to 90 percent of salary -- 50 percent more than the formula Scrivner wants to return to. Enhancements can bring the final percentage even higher.

General employees would get 2 at 55 under his plan. New hires currently get 2.7 at 55.

In addition, Scrivner wants a requirement that Bakersfield voters approve any future pension increases for city employees.

Couch wants to take benefits down to 1.6 percent, have new hires pay the full amount of their employee contributions -- the city currently takes over those payments after a certain number of years -- and launch a 401(k) or similar plan.

"Maybe we need to scale back further than where we were," Couch said of dipping below the former 2 percent mark.

If voters approve the idea, the changes would likely take place soon after the election for police and fire units, which don't have contracts. It would kick in for newly hired general workers starting in 2012, after their current contract expires.

Billy Owens, president of the SEIU 521 local for Bakersfield city employees, said general workers already made concessions in 2008 by lowering pension benefits to 2.7 at 55 for new hires. (More tenured staffers earn 3 percent at 60.)

"I find it kind of odd that wasn't even brought up," Owens said.

Scrivner's plan would "subvert the legal bargaining process," Owens said, and "tie the city's hands" in future contracts.

"We look at it as political showboating because it's not going to correct the problem" since any fiscal savings won't be seen for years, Owens said.

He pegged the spike in pension costs to the stock market collapse and to the city's failure to pay into the plan when the market was booming.

Bill Ware, president of the Bakersfield Police Officers Association, said his union is trying to determine whether the ballot proposition is legally feasible.

"We're looking at recourses we may potentially have," Ware said.

The police union sued the city in September over alleged bad faith bargaining after negotiations formally collapsed nearly a year ago. The suit is still in play. Both city police and firefighters are currently working without contracts.

QUICK ACTION

In order to get a proposition onto June's primary ballot, the city council would have to approve the idea at its Feb. 17 meeting and call an election. A simple majority vote of the seven-member council is required to send the matter to voters.

Voters could approve the proposition with a simple majority. If approved, the language would be inserted into Bakersfield's municipal code and could not be changed except through another vote by city residents.

A special meeting will almost certainly be called before the council's Feb. 17 session to draft language and clarify how to proceed with the dual requests from Scrivner and Couch.

While Wednesday's council discussion focused on scheduling a special closed session -- one held in private -- City Attorney Ginny Gennaro said Thursday just a portion of the meeting would be secret. Only labor issues and legal risks would be discussed out of the public's earshot, she said.

The council's discussion of the proposition wording and the nuts-and-bolts process of getting the item on the June ballot would be done in the open.

More public discussion would take place at the Feb. 17 meeting.

When asked whether it's legal to change benefits at the ballot box, Gennaro said there will "always be two sides to that issue."

But she believes if voters approve, it will stand.

"We're going to make it as legal as possible," she said.

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