Wednesday, November 23, 2011

What Rough Beast Slouches Towards San Jose to be Born?

Somewhat under the radar, a very interesting moment in the battle between California's public employee unions and its taxpayers is taking place in San Jose. Facing a budget deficit of about $80 million (for those keeping score at home, this would be eleven straight years of budget holes) and soaring costs for retirement benefits, the state's third-largest city has spent this year pursuing a bold plan for reforming its out-of-control pensions. While most of the pension reform proposals around California involve reducing the benefits of future government workers, San Jose's problems are so severe that it's planning a ballot measure to claw back the benefits of current employees as well. Their argument, essentially, is that the spending cuts required to offset the growing pension liabilities will require cuts to public safety and other services so drastic that the city will become all but unlivable. Back in June, Mayor Chuck Reed offered this description of what the San Jose of 2016 could look like:
A volunteer fire department, a mostly volunteer police department, and not much else. All libraries except Martin Luther King would be closed. All community centers, most likely closed.
After backing down in June on a plan to bring the plan to this month's ballot, Reed is moving forward in earnest these days. As reported in the San Jose Mercury News, the City Council made the case yesterday for a state of fiscal emergency. This sets the stage for a vote on December 6; if this vote goes the Mayor's way, the fiscal emergency will be declared, and Reed's reform measure will end up on the ballot in a special March election. The city has been in negotiations with its unions to avert this election, but according to council members, the concessions offered fall well short of what San Jose needs to avoid steep cuts in fire and police services, as well as the closure of most libraries and recreation centers.

Of course, San Jose's problems are likely far from over even if it can get the measure passed by voters. Current workers' benefits are generally viewed as vested rights, so at a minimum Reed's plan will be tied up in court for a while. We admire the Mayor's political courage on this issue, but we'd still guess that this saga ends either with a bankruptcy filing or the end of San Jose as a place where anyone might want to live.


Post a Comment