by Mike Pruger
Fiscal crisis. Pensions on the chopping block. Change is coming. We see these doomsday statements in the news on a daily basis. Nothing engenders fear like a headline suggesting personal calamity.
America has ridden the tide of the worst economy even the most senior of us has not seen since the Great Depression — a misnomer if there ever was one, since there was nothing great about it.
The pain was felt by everyone. Retirements were lost, homes were foreclosed and many found themselves unemployed.
The greed on Wall Street caused heartache to millions throughout the country who couldn’t possibly have understood the consequences of a selfish few.
As we get back to work and regain what was lost, we continue to be barraged with fear-mongering headlines that imply public employees are not only to blame for the economic downturn, but should be the ones to single-handedly solve the problem. And the problem should be solved without them helping to craft the solution.
Saying our public pensions are in crisis is a scare tactic to cause hysteria and force some groundswell among policymakers to make wholesale changes. California’s current budget picture is one of recovery. Santa Cruz County, too, is in recovery.
Our two largest pension funds are performing far above the annual rate of return from their actuaries. At the beginning of this year, the California Public Employees Retirement System announced returns of 18.4 percent. Last year’s rate? 16.2 percent. The three year average return? 10.4 percent. We are winning.
Do pension naysayers expect a full economic turnaround immediately? If they do, I urge them to look at these numbers. The numbers don’t lie.
My organization, the Santa Cruz County Deputy Sheriffs Association, was a leader during the difficult times in attempting to figure out ways to assist the county with its difficulties. We negotiated while in contract to allow for a second tier retirement, before it was legislated by the governor. We froze negotiated pay increases. Our 4.62 percent furlough was extended by the county almost a year longer than any other bargaining unit in the county. All this occurred while deputies like others suffered the loss of their homes and had to file for bankruptcy. Other organizations throughout the county had similar experiences. My members are taxpayers, too. We experienced the same belt-tightening that those not in the law enforcement field did. And we have done our part, at the bargaining table, to make reasonable reforms.
My point is the Santa Cruz County Deputy Sheriffs Association has always returned to the bargaining table to make additional concessions, as have hundreds of public employee organizations. Recovery is a steady process, not a specious spike.
I have been a peace officer in Santa Cruz for nearly 30 years. As a leader of the associations of both our peace officers and deputy sheriffs, I have been involved in half a dozen contract negotiations, including those bargained for during the peak of our economic woes. We worked hard during the crisis to collaborate and put the county and state’s economy on our current course.
Nobody is more concerned about retirement security than those earning and receiving those benefits, like my 30 years of policing. Our future is not fair political fodder.
As you mention, the recent poll by Reason magazine found “Americans generally want government employees to receive their pensions as promised, but they don’t want additional taxes to achieve it.”
We agree that these pensions should not be achieved by raising taxes. However, it is important to note that economic growth and fair contract bargaining have rendered a successful answer.
Mike Pruger is the president of the Santa Cruz Deputy Sheriff's Association and a 30-year law enforcement veteran.