From the Orange County Register Opinion Page this morning is an op-ed from Orange County Employees Association General Manager Nick Berardino responding to Board of Supervisor’s Chairman John Moorlach’s proposed ballot measure to require taxpayer vote on changes in county worker pension benefits. I wrote about this proposal about 10 days ago, but here is Nick’s take on it.
Taxpayer Vote on Pensions is a Red Herring
by Nick Berardino
Orange County Employees Association
We are living in difficult economic times. That fact is repeatedly driven home for me as I am exposed to the day-to-day struggles of ordinary working people and their families. Frankly, when hardworking men and women are struggling just to put a roof over their heads, food on their tables, and gas in their cars, the last thing we need is old-style political grandstanding.Â
Unfortunately, grandstanding is precisely what the Board of Supervisors will be doing if they approve a November ballot measure to require voter approval of retirement benefit increases for County of Orange employees. This sounds self-serving, coming as it does from a union leader. But even a union leader can be right, and in this case the facts speak for themselves.
In our representative democracy, elected officials are charged with making difficult decisions. That responsibility goes hand-in-hand with elected office. As to decisions about retirement benefits, not a single employee benefit of any kind can be implemented unless it is approved by the Board of Supervisors. Who is it that the proponents of this measure do not trust to make tough decisions? Themselves? Each other? Future elected boards? The truth is it doesn’t matter. Why? Because the proponents of this measure know that there is no credible threat that County employee retirement benefits will be enhanced, and no likelihood that voter approval will ever be required.Â Â
If the proponents of this measure think governing by ballot is such a good idea, why not start instead with something that is actually occurring and will assuredly continue to occur? For example, how about requiring that large County contracts be submitted to the voters for approval? After all, it’s an open secret that such contracts are frequently awarded to-here’s a surprise-supporters of elected decision-makers. I won’t be holding my breath waiting for the Board to put that measure on the ballot.Â
Back to the real world, a great deal of criticism has been leveled at past members of the Board of Supervisors for negotiating and approving a retirement plan that is better than many plans in the private sector.Â What has been lost in the din of undeserved criticism, and what has received little attention, is the fact that those Board members required County employees to pay 100% of the increased cost of the new plan, into perpetuity. Repeated internal and external audits have confirmed that employees have paid and continue to pay that 100%. In other words, the retirement plan approved by that previous Board has not and will not cost taxpayers even one more dollar than the previous plan.Â
Moreover, in agreeing to the retirement plan, Supervisor Bill Campbell and then-CEO Jim Ruth required employees to make $6.5 million in additional concessions beyond the cost of the new retirement plan.Â This was a clear benefit to the County and taxpayers.
The deceptive and inaccurate criticism of those retirement plan improvements underscores another basic fact:Â unionized public employees are often attacked because other citizens no longer have the basic benefits that are necessary to provide a measure of security for them and their families.
Thanks primarily to a combination of the deregulation of the banking and security industries, corporate greed, and unsavory politicians, working Americans have largely been robbed of their economic security. What we should all recognize and embrace is the great shared interest that all working people possess in restoring that security. We share that interest whatever our means of livelihood, whether we work in the private sector or the public sector, whether we sweep streets or run a business from a home office, whether we protect abused children or sell automobiles.Â
Instead, some opportunistic politicians seize on our fears and appeal to our worst instincts. And many buy the lie, saying in so many words, “If I don’t have decent benefits, no one should have them.”Â But rather than succumbing to the twin sins of jealousy and envy, we should instead recognize our shared economic interests, and support the proposition that all working Americans should have the opportunity to achieve benefits that will secure their futures and the futures of their children.
Instead of wasting taxpayer time and resources with a meaningless ballot measure, the Board of Supervisors would be well advised to focus on the real issues that confront the County and its residents, like education, health care costs, the housing crisis, and the impact of soaring prices for food and fuel.
I am confident that County residents are smart enough to see the “voter approval” ballot initiative for what it really is-old-style political grandstanding.