In a way, I debated whether I really needed to highlight his column on these pages, most of the arguments have been made before. But I do so, because in a lot of ways, I think he raises a crucial point about the changing landscape in Davis.
In terms of the issue of this year’s elections, I both agree and disagree with Mr. Rifkin. While it is true that Measure means that the council does not get the last word on peripheral growth, it does render the council’s positions as moot. I think the neighbors of Chiles Ranch will attest to this fact. And I can go down the list.
However, I do agree with Rich Rifkin, the most important issue facing the city of Davis is the long-term budget and that is indeed a problem that the City Council not only created but they and only they can fix.
What is interesting at least right now is that even here the dividing line on the council is the same cleavage with the council majority of Mayor Asmundson, Mayor Pro Tem Saylor, and Councilmember Souza holding the line and preserving the status quo while Councilmembers Greenwald and Heystek have been very strident in pushing for reform and fiscal responsibility.
The problem is I just do not know how much the average Davisite cares about this issue. We had a townhall meeting back in May and had between 30 and 40 attendees. Not a bad turnout, but not great. Consistently we have seen packed rooms for issues such as the Palestinian Conflict, homeless, Measure J, woodburning stoves, Measure P, even the discussion of Willowbank drew a full audience. However, when issues of the budget or the firefighters contract come up there are only a few interested parties.
I have often joked that I have to write about landuse issues on the Vanguard in order to insure I have an audience for other topics that I would rank as more important. And I don’t mean to dismiss the importance of land use issues, however, I believe there are more pressing matters at the moment as long as Measure J remains in place.
I do want to get into the crux of the matter here as Rich Rifkin makes some good points that bear repeating.
The bottom line with the MOU is that it does not fix the long-term problems. Although I think the short-term problems are not solved nearly as well as they imply either. The city has implied over $800,000 in savings over three years but that is from the unsustainable baseline of continuing the current contract rather than reduction from actual spending in year 0. Sue Greenwald has already found that the city only saves $57,000 in real dollars from year 0 to year 3.
But Rich Rifkin focuses on the long-term where I agree, the bulk of the city’s problem lies. In most ways this is now a lost opportunity.
Mr. Rifkin writes:
“The chagrin is that the fire contract ignores our future reality. As a short-term document, it is not bad. The concept of capping the growth of total compensation is commendable. But the reason two of the five members of the council gave it a thumbs-down is because it has no long-term reform.
By putting off a solution for at least three more years, the current council is guaranteeing that when the crisis comes in 2017, it will be far more difficult to disentangle.”
The biggest problem is the unfunded liaiblity for retire health care benefits with most estimates placing that between $42 million and $65 million.
Writes Mr. Rifkin:
“We have no money to pay this bill.
The reason the expense is so great is because our pension program encourages city employees to retire absurdly young. A firefighter or a cop can get full health benefits and 90 percent of his highest salary at age 50 if he chooses to quit working. Desk workers in Davis can go on a full pension as early as age 55 and pay nothing out of pocket for their medical, dental or vision care.
(Starting in about 2026, new retirees under 60 will have to pay part of their premiums.)”
Rich Rifkin then turns his sights to the Sunday op-ed by Councilmembers Saylor and Souza, who he points out together took over $8000 in campaign contributions from the firefighters in the 2008 election. They defend the deal they struck with Local 3494.
“Saylor and Souza point out, before the city started negotiating with the union, council members agreed to ‘guiding principles’ that they would follow.
One of those tenets was: ‘Strive to reduce the long-term liability of retiree medical costs, while retaining progressive elements of the city’s retiree medical insurance benefit.’
Ask any objective auditor whether the contract they reached with the firefighters ‘reduces the long-term liability.’ None will say it does.
We did not reduce the city’s share of this expense. We did not decide to wait until a retiree reaches age 65 before we started paying his bill. We did not drop the spousal or dependent benefit. We did not opt for a more modest health care package. And we did not change our pension formulas that encourage the early retirements for any new hires.
In short, the council dropped the ball. And the ball is going to land on the heads of the taxpayers in a few years.”
“The op-ed by Saylor and Souza stresses a series of short-term changes, such as a 4 percent cut in wages for the firefighters. What the councilmen fail to mention is that in 2005, flush with firefighter financing, they voted to increase firefighter pay by 36 percent.
What made our City Council think that large a pay raise was affordable? It seems to me a bit disingenuous to slap yourself on the back for your great success in reducing salaries by a few percent when you were the ones responsible for raising their rates to an unsustainable level.”
Finally he calls it unethical for the council candidates to accept money from the people who do business with the city.
“I will pay attention to which special interests are funding which candidates. It is unethical for a council candidate to accept money from people who do business with the city. The firefighters financed all three members of the council who approved their recent deal. The two they did not fund in the last election voted no.
I hope voters in Davis will have the sense this year to vote no on any candidate who takes tainted cash and turns around and rewards his financiers.”
The advantage of this site is that I am regularly write pieces that are 1200 to 1500 words, occasionally they can go over 2000 words or even 3000 to 4000 words. Mr. Rifkin only had 900 words to explain a rather complex problem and I think he did a very good job.
My hope is that the public as it becomes aware of this problem with gain concern for it and we are currently working on a way to do just that.
—David M. Greenwald reporting