Why Russell Buckley Keeps Talking Pensions

By Chris Lavin, Editor

LA MESA – The City Council met again Tuesday and the proceedings moved along with an almost ritual-like familiarity. Praise for some programs, service recognitions (it was Art Madrid’s 30th anniversary in city government), pay the bills and listen to citizen comments.

And increasingly familiar these days is an appearance by Russell Buckley.

The retired school teacher impresses all with his civil, eloquent lectures delivered with professorial touches.

Despite the reasoned tone, however, Buckley’s message could be understood as this: THE FREAKING SKY IS FALLING!!!!!!

Buckley has clearly used many hours of his retirement researching and understanding the pension challenges that are facing local governments in the wake of the Great Recession.

“La Mesa has $32-million dollars in unfunded pension liabilities,’’ Buckley, pictured above, told the council again on Tuesday. “That represents more than two-thirds of your general fund. You are going to have to come up with a plan for handling this. I know you put aside $500,000 this year, but that’s not going to do it.’’

The council members thank Buckley for his direct and constructive tone, but they can say little more. The numbers are what they are and any plan to dig out of that big a hole will clearly take years and painful decisions that aren’t made in run-of-the-mill council meetings.

The council will hold a more exhaustive budget meeting on March 24th and Councilman Ernest Ewin is pushing to have the pension crisis take up a big part of that meeting (request for information document: Item7CCAgenda2-8%5B1%5D%5B1%5D.pdf).

In Buckley’s frequent comments on the issue, invariably the public employee unions play the heavy role. In the clear light of the post-recession day, it is union members who are receiving pensions that clearly outpace the sorts of pensions being earned in the private sector. Buckley will mention “retired firemen making $12,000 a month’’ from their pensions and rail against public officials – the Helix Water District is another favorite target – who haven’t even required that the employees contribute to their own retirement benefits. The La Mesa council members were among the first to do this, for which Buckley gives them credit.

But knowing who exactly to blame for this crisis is as hard as figuring out what to do with these enormous debts hanging over virtually all municipalities and the state.

If you talk to those who have watched elected officials deal with their unions over the years, it was clear that the politicians were consistently willing to exchange less visible, long-term retirement and health benefits against union’s willingness to accept lower, more visible and immediate salary increases.

And often, with the stock market booming and the economy expanding, experts would even recommend the elected officials pursue this route; the booming stock market could make up for the increased retirement costs and the taxpayers would never feel the pain.

So, when the housing market crashed and took the stock market with it, the public pension funds that were being counted on to cover these enriched public retirement benefits started looking as anemic as the bundles of toxic mortgages that drove all our home values so far downhill.

The big difference, of course, is that those stock funds can and have recovered somewhat with the rebounding stock market so figuring the size of the long-term problem and the immediate steps needed to begin addressing them are the quiet art of government finance – and politics – right now.

Everyone agrees that watching the state – and some local – governments these days is like watching a train wreck in slow motion. The only question is how much damage will be done.

In another view, the pain that the state, local and federal governments are experiencing are just the delayed version of what the rest of the U.S. economy experienced over the last few years.

Private companies throughout the country are operating with lower revenues and fewer employees than four years ago. In this view, government is just growing back to fit with the economy that now supports it. If that means fewer public employees and lower salaries – and fewer services supplied to the electorate – that isn’t anything different than most U.S. private sectors have been experiencing now for years.

However, it is easier for governments to reduce future spending (and services) than to deal with past obligations – like promised pensions – that continue to extract an increasingly large portion of the current general funds that fix our streets, run our parks and pay for our schools.

When the state makes its cuts and the local governments then get a better feel for their own future budget circumstances, it is clear the effects will be felt throughout the state and at all levels of government.

Higher tuitions, larger class sizes, increased fees, and reduced services will be a persistent part of life as government restructures in its own way.

And just as persistent, will be the on-going cost of pension and benefit deals hammered out in much better times.

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Tags: "Russell, , Pensions, , Buckley, Buckley", Government, La Mesa City Council, Russell Buckley

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Comment by Craig S. Maxwell on February 12, 2011 at 1:08pm
Cheers, David!
Comment by David Stanley on February 11, 2011 at 11:46am
Craig, you me, Mate!
Comment by Craig S. Maxwell on February 11, 2011 at 7:16am

David,

I would be the last person to describe Buckley's message as such (i.e., hysterical). That is my point. Buckley is (in contrast with our politicians) an honest, intelligent man who has told us things we need to hear.

And, having run against him in '06, I am as well acquainted with Madrid's lies and corruption as anyone in La Mesa.

Comment by David Stanley on February 10, 2011 at 4:44pm
Chris and Craig, believe me: Buckley's message/messages CANNOT be catagorized as "The Sky Is Falling".  Like me, he looks aghast at the vast sea of corruption, twisted politics, self-aggrandizement, "good ole boy system we face daily and is sickened. I, for one, feel he is one of the champions willing to stand up and shout, "I'm mad as hell and I'm not going to take it anymore"!!!  David Stanley
Comment by Chris Lavin on February 10, 2011 at 9:33am

As usual, LaMesaToday.com leads the way Craig. Thanks for noticing!

Chris Lavin, Editor

Comment by Craig S. Maxwell on February 10, 2011 at 8:59am

"Despite the reasoned tone, however, Buckley’s message could be understood as this: THE FREAKING SKY IS FALLING!!!!!!"

Really? By whom? I have never heard "Buckley's message" characterized that way by anyone (until now).

Comment by Russell Buckley on February 9, 2011 at 2:10pm
Thanks David, for the positive and accurate report of last night's council meeting. I must make one comment -- about " ... knowing exactly who to blame ...". I don't know who because I wasn't at the many meetings and discussions that led us to where we are. But I do have an opinion about what to blame. That is letting an already very generous pension program get out of hand. In about 2001 we increased the multiplier for Safety from 2% at 50 to 3% at 50 and a couple of years later we increased all other city employees from a 2% at 55 to 3% at 60. All made retroactively! And for the non-safety we also contribute to Social Security. As life spans increase, the idea of allowing people to work for only 30 years in order to receive nearly full salary (not even considering pension spiking) for life - guaranteed by taxpayers - becomes increasingly ridiculous. On top of that it is fundamentally unfair to have those working in the public sector receive pensions so much greater than a typical private sector worker receives. We must return to fair and affordable pensions for public sector workers- preferably yesterday.  My point here is only to say that the cause of our troubles is the decisions that led to such unrealistic and unnecessary pension programs. So, I'll stop. Thanks again for the good reporting.
Comment by David Stanley on February 9, 2011 at 11:44am
Proud of Madrid and his Council now? Does it seem as though he/they are just "carryin on"? Does it feel like Madrid's much vaunted 30 years of experience is working for the citizens or is it/he IN FACT working for himself? Hmmm? We all concur that our individual appearances and statements to the MWD will have absolutely NO impact on their entrenched operation but what if, IF the separate Cities attended, not just the crawling representatives but some someone with enough guts to really represent the citizens and DEMAND reform, immediate reform with immediate lowering of the out of line water rates and follow it with threat and actual litigation??? Its not like the Cities do not have the money for a massive and rapid court action.  Hell, they waste more money daily, each of them, than the litigation would cost! So, your fabulous Madrid and gang are sticking up for all you - all of us, huh?  Better think about that.  You voted him in.  Now what are you going to do about it?  David Stanley
Comment by David Smyle on February 9, 2011 at 10:11am
Thank you Russell for being the champion of the people.  The City continues to talk a good game but when I posed the question to them of why the City doesn't protest the HWD exhorbitant employee benefits since the CIty is the 4th largest water user of HWD and of course paying the HWD with our tax dollars, their response is your issue is not with us, it is with the HWD Board.  Yes, that is exactly correct but as a rate payer and water user, you the City should also have an issue with the HWD Board and what are you doing about it?  Should we assume you don't care what rates you pay because it doesn't come out of your pocket directly?  After all, we did give you an extra .75% in sales tax to help bail the CIty out so now there is no urgent need to pinch pennies like the CIty of San Diego but like Russell states, the looming pension crises will most likely bankrupt us and most other cities even with reform because the 7.75% Calpers return is unsustainable and until that gets changed, we are all doomed.  The City of Lemon Grove wrote a letter to the HWD about gettting their expenses in line so what exempts the City of La Mesa?  Mayor Madrid and Councilman Allan, you and the rest of the Council should have an issue with the HWD, not just us.  Maybe because the HWD pays you $160,000 a year towards Harry Griffin Park you feel obligated not to make an issue with them.  You all are supposed to be champions of the people, just like Russell.  You all are supposed to represent us as our elected officials and that means working on our behalf to also try and keep the water rates down and applying pressure or being vocal about the employee benefit abuses by HWD.  This seems like something you should be doing since the HWD doesn't really care about me or Russell showing up to a HWD Board meeting but maybe if our elected leaders from all the areas served by HWD spoke up, the issue might get more attention.  Forget about the two tiered system, have new employees go to a 401K.  That wo
Comment by David Stanley on February 9, 2011 at 8:40am
Chris, your encapsulated report is outstanding and enlightening. Buckley's and a few other voices are, regrettably, moans in the wind. You see how enthusiastic the City Council is about attacking the issue. Exactly the same applies to all cities and municipalities regarding water. Their only answer is agree to ever higher rates, regardless of where the monies are actually going, and, "hell, while we're at it lets kick the taxes just abit more" (Like La Mesa). The response I received from MWD outlined their diligent efforts to save as much money for comsumers as possible, describing how they have cutback on personnel expenses, dropped various annual "outings", etc. and really tightened their collective belts. Still and yet, our rates continue to soar whilst they nod knowingly and cluck, "There, there". Takes more than one man or a few talking to a non-responsive City Council.  Takes, well, I darent say it in this forum!

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