Almanac

News - February 3, 2010

Menlo Park: Group launches initiative to cut city pension costs

by Sean Howell

A group organized by former council member Lee Duboc has taken formal action to launch a ballot initiative aimed at changing Menlo Park's pension system for new city employees.

Menlo Park resident Ned Moritz on Jan. 27 filed a statement of organization on behalf of a committee called "Citizens for Fair and Responsible Pension Reform." As outlined in documents submitted to the city, the initiative would increase the retirement age for new, non-police employees from 55 to 60 years of age. It would also decrease the pension payments those employees receive.

Henry Riggs and Roy Sardina are co-chairs of the group. Mr. Riggs said he is confident that the city will approve the filing, and that the group could start working this spring toward gathering the 2,500 signatures it would need to place the initiative on the November ballot.

Prognosticators have warned for years that California's pension system for public employees is not sustainable. Local interest in the issue seems to have picked up in the past year, sparked in part by the effects of the economic recession, in part by a San Mateo County civil grand jury report on the subject, and in part by e-mails circulated by Ms. Duboc.

"This is not a right, left or central issue," Mr. Moritz wrote in a post on The Almanac's Web site. "It affects everyone who pays taxes. ... The reality of our broken economy and the reality of the CalPERS pension investment trust needs to be addressed quickly."

Mr. Riggs said that he and other organizers were impressed by the level of interest from people willing to donate money to the campaign or volunteer time to collect signatures, but declined to disclose specifics.

With City Attorney Bill McClure still reviewing the proposal, Mayor Rich Cline said he wanted to get more information before weighing in on how he thought the city should respond to the initiative effort. City Manager Glen Rojas has acknowledged that the current pension system is not sustainable in the long run, but has also cautioned that acting before other cities do so could put Menlo Park at a disadvantage in hiring.

Ms. Duboc countered that, if passed, the measure would make Menlo Park an example to other cities in the county, and even the state. She added that it would be "unreasonable" to expect elected officials to take action on pension reform.

"I think it's really hard, once you get to be an elected official, working in the system, to just go and do this," she said. "If Willie Brown thinks of this as a lost cause with politicians, then, truly, it has to come from the grassroots, the people have to do it."

Mr. Moritz said the initiative process could provide the council with an impetus to address the issue.

"Our committee is not trying to circumvent" the council, he said. "If they wish to take the process over, they have that option."

Under the group's proposal, after 30 years' service, new non-police employees would receive an annual pension equal to 60 percent of the average of their three highest consecutive annual salaries. The current system, approved by the council in 2007, allows current non-police employees to retire after 30 years with 81 percent of their highest annual salary.

Rodolfo Ordonez, a liaison between Menlo Park employees and the union that represents most city workers, argued at the Jan. 26 council meeting that there is no need to overhaul the pension system.

"The truth is that pension benefits are not excessive, and do not drain public (funds)," he said. "It's a myth that the (pension) formula is the reason we are facing this humongous debt. ... The real reason is the downturn in the economy."

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