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Pension reform gathers steam
May 04, 2010, 02:36 AM By Bill Silverfarb Daily Journal staff

Bill Silverfarb/Daily Journal Menlo Park City Clerk Margaret Roberts inspects signatures for a ballot measure intended to curtail increasing pension costs as Henry Riggs and Roy Thiele-Sardina look on. Riggs and Thiele-Sardina co-chair the Citizens for Fair and Responsible Pension Reform.

An effort to curb excessive pensions for government employees has gained steam in Menlo Park as a grassroots group has submitted enough signatures to qualify a measure for the November ballot.

Citizens for Fair and Responsible Pension Reform turned in more than 3,100 signatures to Menlo Park City Clerk Margaret Roberts yesterday afternoon in an attempt to return the retirement age from 55 to 60 for city employees. The group needed to collect 1,740 signatures to qualify the measure for the November ballot.

Union officials representing city employees, however, warn that the measure will not save the city money as it claims it will.

"This initiative is absolutely misguided and potentially illegal. Look at the facts. For one, it won’t save the city money as it pretends it would. Even worse, the initiative appears to be a violation of California labor law and will be challenged in court,” said Yvonne Gulley, chief steward at the Menlo Park chapter of the Service Employees International Union.

Under current city rules, an employee can receive 2.7 percent of his or her salary for each year of service up to 30 at age 55 with a cap of 81 percent. The reform group’s ballot measure will allow a city employee to earn up to 60 percent of an employee’s salary at age 60 or 2 percent at 60 for 30 years of service. The measure, however, excludes sworn police officers.

The current formula will eventually bankrupt the city, the reform group contends.

The measure, if passed, would apply only to employees hired after it is approved by voters.

Henry Riggs, a Menlo Park planning commissioner, and Roy Thiele-Sardina, a venture capitalist, are the group’s co-chairs.

Both men and a group of about 20 others, including former members of the San Mateo County Civil Grand Jury, showed up at Menlo Park City Hall yesterday to drop off bags full of signatures.

The civil grand jury issued a report last year critical of escalating employee costs and recommended cities adopt a two-tiered system for benefits going forward. At least three former civil grand jury members were at Menlo Park City Hall yesterday, two of them residing in the city.

Once the clerk certifies the signatures are valid they will be forwarded to the County Recorder’s office for certification.

But Thiele-Sardina hopes the City Council will simply adopt the group’s formula to avoid a costly election.

"The council has two options. They can adopt it themselves or let the voters decide. I’d rather council just adopt it,” Thiele-Sardina said.

Menlo Park increased its pension formula in 2007 from 2 percent at 60 to 2.7 percent at 55.

The measure also calls for the prevention of retroactive retirement benefit increases for new and current employees and calls for voter approval for any future pension increases.

At the state level, Sen. Joe Simitian, D-Palo Alto, wants to end the practice of public employees abusing the state’s pension system by boosting their final salaries before retirement by cashing out on vacation time or administrative leave, for instance, to get higher monthly payments.

Senate Bill 1425 aims to curtail the problem of pension spiking amongst public employees and "double dippers,” those who retire with substantial pensions and then pursue similar jobs often at the same public agency.

Virginia Chang-Kiraly, the forewoman for last year’s civil grand jury, was on hand yesterday as the signatures were handed to the city clerk in Menlo Park.

"I think the pension system, as it is, is unsustainable. This is not just a local problem. It is a statewide problem or even a national problem. Other cities around the state should look at what Menlo Park is doing,” Chang-Kiraly said.

But union officials say all the negative attention public employees and their benefits have received in the past year or so will cause voters to react on emotion rather than fact.

"In the end, this is nothing more than political grandstanding by a small minority group. Unfortunately, they’re taking taxpayers along for the ride,” the SEIU’s Gulley said.

The San Mateo County Central Labor Council will conduct a forum this weekend for local elected officials to discuss pensions. Bob Brownstein, research director of Working Partnerships, will present an analysis on the topic "Two-Tiered Pensions: Solution or Setback.”

Bill Silverfarb can be reached by e-mail: silverfarb@smdailyjournal.com or by phone: (650) 344-5200 ext. 106.

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