A-Tisket a-Tasket

I was recently taken to task for my opinion peace on Jerry Sanders and Sunroad in last week’s CityBeat by a City Hall staffer of note who shall remain nameless. City Hall person took exception to my calling the pension and retiree health funds “woefully underfunded” writing:

“Now that’s just wrong. The latest valuation showed that the pension system is at least 80% funded, a respectable ratio for a government pension system, and a double-digit increase from the height of the so-called “crisis.” The City’s actuary states that the City will continue to be able to pay the pension obligation at the same proportion of the general fund as we do_today, and that, barring some unknown catastrophe, there is no chance of bankruptcy. SDCERS has over $5 billion in assets, and earned a 16% return on its investment last year, double its 8% projection. It is one of the best-performing pension systems in the country. The Council voted last year to establish a retiree health trust fund,_which will start to chip away at that large liability. And compared to other large cities like San Francisco and New York, our retiree health obligation is just a drop in the bucket. San Francisco has a $5 billion health care liability. Yikes!_ I know it’s fun to wallow in the doom and gloom, but things ARE changing for the better. I’d love it if the media would update their outdated boilerplate!!

Ouch. Given this task-taking was administered by a person I know and greatly respect, I had to set myself to pondering whether or not I was overly harsh in my critique of the City’s fiscal status. After careful introspection (and outward fact inspection) I must regretfully conclude that I was, indeed, correct in my original assessment. My reply to City Hall Staffer:

I appreciate your position on this and the time you’ve taken to take me to task I’m still not convinced, however, that the Pension fund is anwheres near out of the woods. First, the funds still hasn’t made it to the 82.5% minimum funding level—and that is a minimum, not necessarily an optimum, levvel. Second, current negotiations with Police/Fire and other muni workers seem likely to add significant additional costs to the long term pension obligation without providing any new revenue stream to meet these costs. Third, comparing San Diego to San Francisco and New York is irrelevant. They are different beasties when it comes to tax and revenue base and access to market liquidity. I think this is underscored by the fact San Diego is still out of the national bonds markets: we’re still seen as sub-prime by the money boys and the pension obligations are a big part of that. Fourth, the national, state and regional economies are headed into the tank over the next 18 months – housing markets and the normal business cycle being what they are. These last few years were the fat years of the latest cycle during which the City should have made much more dramatic moves in fixing its fiscal house. My bet it come 2009/10 we are going to be back in crisis mode.

Fifth, I don’t like to wallow in doom and gloom. I’d love to write about the San Diego renaissance. But it hasn’t come about yet. And simply slapping a smiley face on things won’t make them better. If Sunroad proves anything, its that the same old good ‘ol boy mentality in San Diego that produced the pension crisis in the first place is still alive and metastatically thriving.

So, am I being to harsh on the City? You decide.

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8 Responses to “A-Tisket a-Tasket”

  1. Sunburned Says:

    As long as the metaphor is metastasis, and thinking recently of the past John Dean pronouncement concerning the highest level of government, try this:

    If a cancer within your body could speak, it would always assure you that things were just fine: after all, metastasis is an advantage for any cancer, and although your body may be consumed and die, the cancer would tell you that you never know: outside forces may allow you to survive, and that things could go well for you. The cancer may even make a case that it enhances your body. And besides, who can ever determine what exactly is good, or bad, or unknown, so why worry? The cancer determines and interprets all of the rules of its own existence. Anything is possible, so why engage in doom and gloom? That would only compel you to actively engage and fight the cancer.

    Please order extreme chemo and radiation for City Hall, stat.

  2. Sunburned Says:

    And may I add, the bowtie guy at the U-T, which I always confuse with City Hall, has no sense of irony. I quote from the Aug 3 2007 U-T/City Hall editorial titled “Rewriting Reality”:

    “Any student of the news is familiar with the public relations tactics that large organizations in crisis use to try to preserve their image – the mea culpas, full or limited; the earnest promises to do better; the punishment of a few selected individuals; the dropping of hints about the possibly questionable motives of the most severe critics; etc. The whole process has become a stylized ritual, a sort of reputational Chapter 11 through which the disgraced get back in everyone’s good graces.”

  3. mlaiuppa Says:

    I’ve always maintained that the biggest problem with City Hall isn’t our Mayor or Councilpeople (although they certainly share blame). And it isn’t the many city workers or the Unions. It’s the City Staffers. I can’t tell you how many times I’ve gone to a city council meeting and heard the council direct staff to come back with some sort of information. And when they do come back weeks later, they didn’t do their job. Instead of coming back with a way to do this or that, they come back with excuses why it can’t be done or some such other. And the blame in this lies in the Council and Mayor never taking these staffers to task. I have never once heard anyone nail them with “That isn’t what I asked you to do. Now go back and do what I asked you to do.” I think the City Staffers as much as anyone are responsible for what does and does not get done in this city, and for the messes that have been made. The staffers are in the employ of the Council. When your boss tells you to do something you do it. You don’t make excuses about how it can’t be done just because you don’t like the policy.

  4. coaks Says:

    “You’re so wise. You’re like a miniature Buddha, covered in hair.” – Anchorman

    http://www.coaks.wordpress.com

  5. Doug Says:

    Mlaiuppa is wrong about the City staffers. Under the strong mayor form of government, city staffers are solely under the direction of the “strong mayor”. Council has never been able to direct City Staff, unless it was the City Manager (who no longer exists).

  6. Carl Luna Says:

    Doug, that’s true but the Council has always retained oversight power over the manager (now mayor) and the major department heads. What the Council has lacked is the spine to use that power and discipline consistently underperforming managers and departments by cancelling hiring contracts for at will employees and/or reducing budgets as a punitive tool. And the mayor has direct power to manage much of this.

  7. Carl Luna Says:

    And Coaks, if the Anchorman quote was aimed at me, my only reply can be:

    “I dont know how to put this, but i’m kind of a big deal, people know me. I’m very important. I have many leather-bound books and my apartment smells of rich mahogany.”

    🙂

  8. mlaiuppa Says:

    Doug, exactly how long has our “strong mayor” form of government been in effect? Do you know? Because prior to that I watched the staffers ignore directives and jerk around the City Council and….nothing. The got away with it time and time again. This has been going on for YEARS. Way before we had a “strong mayor.”

    I don’t think anything has changed with the “strong mayor” either, since Jim Waring, Sander’s deputy chief operating officer for land use and economic development, continued to lobby to scale back the amount of feet Sunroad had to lower their building (14 instead of 20) even after his boss, Mayor Sanders, insisted the building be brought down the full 20 feet.

    Now what does that say? Our strong mayor can’t control his staff? Or that with Jerry vacationing in Hawaii they’re running amok, doing whatever they want? Either way…not good.

    It’s unforunate he resigned before Jerry had a chance to fire him. That is….if Jerry had the guts to fire him and not simply wag his finger and tsk tsk him to promise not to do it again.

    You can’t have a strong mayor form of government without a strong Mayor.


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