Running on empty

CITY AFFAIRS: The city of Berkeley must find a solution to its pension problem more quickly if it wants to avoid bankruptcy.

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At a Berkeley City Council meeting on Feb. 9, 2010, Councilmember Laurie Capitelli said that the consequences of not dealing with a pensions system that costs the city millions of dollars each year “could be really bad” and that “we don’t want to just kick the can further down the road.” More than two years later, Berkeley is still operating under the same draining system.

The city of Berkeley must move more quickly to solve its pension problem by capping retirement returns and implementing a new, fiscally responsible program for new employees. The matter has already taken more time to resolve than Berkeley can afford.

City staff and council members have long been aware that current city contributions to employee pensions are unsustainable, and yet have moved slowly to fix the issue. Yes, progress has been made: Negotiations have occurred, and the discourse about city pensions has continued. Councilmember Gordon Wozniak asserts that the council has actively pushed for a two-tiered solution — which would put new employees on a different pension plan than current ones — but it clearly needs to push harder.

And although negotiations with one of five unions representing city employees have ended, no changes will go into effect until all of the unions are satisfied. While every union deserves its fair chance to have its voice heard on every matter that affects its members, drawing out the process hurts all Berkeley residents and city workers.

Admittedly, championing reform for the city’s pension system does not make for good election year politics. Council members and city employees must remember, though, that a functional municipality must be solvent before it can fulfill any of the obligations or services it must carry out. In particular, those council members whose seats are not on the ballot this year must be far more vocal and lead the effort to speed up changes. Because ultimately, a quick adjustment, not a hemorrhaging budget, is what this city needs right now and in the long term.