Of late I have been spending more and more time at home taking care of my father-in-law, who is being cared for by Hospice as well. My father-in-law, Junior Parker, is a great man; 85 years old; WWII veteran who served with the 101st Screaming Eagles at Bastogne; is a Silver Star recipient; returned from the war and joined the Los Angeles Fire Department where he rose through the ranks to Chief before retiring 31 years ago this Sunday. His two brothers also served in WWII and both retired from the LAFD. He often shared his thoughts and wisdom from his days on the LAFD. There are so many parallels to what he experienced during his time and what is occurring today with the San Diego Police Department.
In 1978, my father-in-law was attending a budget hearing of the Los Angeles City Council when it was decided vacation leave would be capped; sick leave would be reduced 50%; and all leave over the cap would be forfeited. My father-in-law had served for 32 years and had NEVER taken a sick day and had accrued in excess of 1,200 hours of vacation leave and an equal amount of sick leave. He quickly crunched the numbers and realized he would lose a huge sum of money and made plans to retire. He said he had no desire to leave a job he loved and believed he had several good years left to serve the department before he retired. But my father-in-law is also a practical man who grew up during the depression and knows the value of a dollar and was not willing to lose that which he rightly earned. So, on June 28, 1978, my father-in-law retired from the Los Angeles Fire Department; before he was ready or wanting too. (Sound familiar?)
Several years before his retirement, the Los Angeles Fire Relief Association (LAFRA) made a pitch to the City Council to add a COLA to retiree pension benefits. The active members were willing to go a year without a raise to gain this benefit. The City refused, so the LAFRA took their request to the voters. They won in a landslide; giving retirees a COLA matching the cost of living published by the Bureau of Labor Statistics. This was the first COLA for a municipal retirement system. There was NO cap to this COLA and when you take into account the maximum retirement benefit at the time was 70% at 30 years it was a necessary benefit.
Fast forward 25 years; voters in Los Angeles voted to approve DROP for Police and Fire. Their retirement system is not facing an Unfunded Liability anywhere near that of the City of San Diego. The press and public understand the system and it works. The DROP in Los Angeles started out being a 3 year DROP and has now increased to a 5 year DROP. Members must have 25 years of service to enter DROP. The reasoning is this ensures the retiree has made sufficient contributions to sustain the system and is not retiring early which negatively affects the system. The COLA still remains, but is capped at 3% and the maximum retirement benefit is 90% at 33 years of service. There are four (4) tiers in the retirement system for the Los Angeles Police and Fire Departments. Tiers two through four offer a maximum 70% retirement with 30 years of service; tier five offers a maximum 90% retirement with 33 years of service. The contribution rate is 8% of salary as long as the system remains 100% funded. If the system drops below 100% funded the employee contributes an additional 1% until the system is back to 100% funded.
So why do I spend time talking about Los Angeles? I think we need to take a look around and examine why other plans are working and what is it they are doing that allows them to maintain 100% funding. Why is it voters in Los Angeles, San Francisco and many other cities across the nation are voting to implement DROP programs for their Public Safety members? We need to take a hard look at our DROP and find out if the program is "Cost Neutral" or what the actual cost is. Once this is determined we can understand what if anything needs to be done to correct the faults with the program, so it works for both the employee and taxpayer. To do otherwise would be foolish in the face of a mayor intent on taking this cherished benefit away. We need to have the facts and knowledge to refute his repeated miss-statements and spin regarding DROP so we can make our case to retain this earned and vested benefit.
The benefits offered employees of the City of San Diego have been labeled "Cadillac" and "Excessive" and "Illegal" and so many other descriptors that I could go on and on. The reality is the benefits offered are in line with those offered across the state and nation. In many ways the wages and benefits when combined; fall well below those of workers in cities; not only within the region but the state. The cost of benefits to a San Diego employee is in many cases 10-20% higher than those of other cities. The contribution to SDCERS by employees is between 10 and 17%, while other cities pay the entire amount for the employee as part of their benefits. Many cities pay the medical insurance of employees and their families while the City of San Diego covers basic health insurance for their employees only. Top that all off with wages that are in the bottom tier of ALL cities in California.
Reasonable suggestion for changes to DROP and other benefits should come from us. What is acceptable to us that will allow for DROP to remain part of our Retirement Benefit? We could sit back and refuse to participate in discussions to protect DROP; but we would then be subject to someone else making the determination of what we should do and how it should be done. I believe we need to participate in the process of evaluation and review that will set the platform for discussions if changes need to be considered.
This is a large field of landmines when dealing with the current mayor. His spin machine is large, tested, and nuclear powered, compared to that of the SDPOA. The mayor's army of henchmen is salivating at the thought of eliminating DROP. Their belief is they can spin the analysis to further turn the taxpayer/public against us. That is why we need to ensure our participation in the analysis and review of the plan. Knowledge is power and the more we have related to this issue the better prepared we will be to combat the spin machine and lies that are sure to surface.
If you want to ensure DROP is available when you reach 50 years of age, I would urge you to get involved today and offer your time to the SDPOA. You cannot afford NOT to MAKE time to involve yourself. If you want a DROP, you must sacrifice your time and energy. Do not expect "the other guy" to do it for you.