Editorial: Public employee benefits should be scaled back

In last weekend’s Tribune, we got an eye-opening look at what the top 50 employees in the city of San Luis Obispo earned in 2009-10.

The wages — excluding benefits — ranged from $160,394 to $123,696. As expected, department heads and other top officials were on the list. Yet 85 percent of the top earners were police officers and firefighters.

Tribune reporter AnnMarie Cornejo found that a police officer was the third highest-paid employee, earning $156,219 — with nearly one-third of that coming from overtime pay.

Some overtime, especially in public safety positions, is inevitable, and no one is suggesting that crews simply pack up and leave the scene of an accident or a fire once their regular shifts have ended.

And to be clear, we in no way begrudge public employees decent wages and benefits — especially police and firefighters who put their lives on the line.

However, in this period of painfully high unemployment, there is something out of whack about a system that allows a relatively small group of public employees to earn such large salaries and benefits, even as new recruits struggle to find jobs.

At the Hancock College Police Academy in Santa Maria, for example, the job placement rate for July 2008 through June 2010 was 45 percent — compared to 85 percent for the previous two years.

Granted, in today’s economy it’s tough to find a job in any profession, whether in the public or private sector. But with many public agencies facing a wave of retirements as baby boomers leave the work force, it’s not the time to shut the door on the next generation of public safety employees.

According to one official interviewed by Cornejo, public agencies sometimes avoid hiring additional workers because it’s less expensive to pay overtime to existing workers than to provide benefits to new employees.

We appreciate the need to keep costs down, but paying overtime to an ever-shrinking pool of employees is not a sustainable model.

If the cost of benefits really is so burdensome that public agencies can’t afford to add new employees as openings occur, then we must scale back pensions and other perks.

This is not as impossible as it seems; the San Luis Obispo County Board of Supervisors recently moved forward with a two-tiered pension system for its union employees that will provide less generous benefits to newly hired workers.

The two-tiered pension system, though, is not a panacea.

It’s also time for all public agencies to re-examine perks that have been taken for granted in the public sector, such as the early retirement age — typically 50 for public safety employees and 55 for other employees — and starting wages that are unusually high.

In San Luis Obispo, for example, a 2008 arbitration award boosted the starting salary for a police officer to $75,000 — which at that time was 33 percent more than the entry level police salary in Los Angeles.

We repeat: We want our public employees to be adequately compensated. But when our public agencies are facing multimillion dollar deficits, we can no longer afford to provide wages and benefits set artificially high.

If local officials won’t act to rein in compensation, there is an alternative: the ballot box.

In the Nov. 2 election, there were ballot measures to limit public employee compensation in 10 California cities. The measures passed in all but one — San Francisco.

There has been talk of similar ballot measures here, especially in the aftermath of the binding arbitration award to SLO police officers.

We hope it never comes to that, because such campaigns can be incredibly divisive.

We would much prefer to see local agencies reach reasonable agreements with their employee groups that will scale back compensation to sustainable levels.

If that doesn’t happen soon, however, taxpayers may be left with no other choice than to look to a ballot measure for relief.

Pension reform

Here are a few of the pension reform measures approved in the Nov. 2 election:

 In Bakersfield, voters reduced pension benefits for newly hired police and firefighters. The measure is expected to save as much as $7.5 million after 10 years.

 In San Jose, voters approved a pair of measures — one limits binding arbitration awards to police and firefighters, and the other requires a two-tiered pension system.

 In Carlsbad, a measure passed that requires a public vote on any future pension increases for public safety employees.