If you asked Californians, "Is pension reform needed?" most would say yes. The steady drumbeat of news about public employee pensions and their impacts on government budgets has assured that.
But follow up with a question about what such reform should look like, and opinions would be across the board. If you're confused over pension reform, just know that you're in good company. In our state's capital, lawmakers have been unable to agree on what pension reform should look like.
That said, you'd be hard-pressed to find an elected official or taxpayer who would dispute that pension reform is needed. But the profound lack of clarity over what form it should take has at times steered the public discussion into areas that have nothing to do with actual pension reform, and have potential to cause serious harm to public safety.
On Aug. 9, the California Police Chiefs Association -- whose member agencies provide police services to nearly 80 percent of the state -- submitted a position paper outlining our thoughts and recommendations, offering a roadmap for discussion and consideration.
For the record, we believe pension reform is needed, and are eager to work collaboratively with state, city and county officials. In the paper, we stressed that any discussion must recognize that pension reform has two critical elements:
Once that definition is understood, it becomes clear that pension reform is decidedly not legislation that:
Our new position paper is consistent with one we drafted in 2010. That paper called for continuation of the defined benefit plan and recognized that local action to meet local needs through the bargaining process was achieving positive results throughout California.
The paper also urged for recognition of the unique needs and dangerous aspects of police work.
The discussion must also recognize the new reality of the governor's public safety realignment program. Managed properly, realignment has the potential to improve public safety. But there's the catch: Proper management will require the continued talents and experience of our most seasoned professionals. I cannot stress enough how important it is that pension policies not create a mass departure of those talented professionals.
Guided by this important point, our position paper outlines some pension concerns:
In 2011, one-third of all California police departments welcomed a new chief. Add the 54 chiefs who left in 2010 -- and those who have left in 2012 -- and more than half of all departments have new leaders.
Cost-sharing decisions for local government employees and employers should be a matter of local control. A recent survey of our members found that 70 percent are in the process of or already have instituted a two-tier system.
Police chiefs and command personnel, and in some agencies, supervisors, must be viewed differently than line personnel covered by negotiated agreements.
Pension holidays should be prohibited so that cities are not able to avoid making their contributions to the system during times of high investment earnings.
Legislation should include provisions to prevent abuse of the system such as spiking or conversion of benefits to increase compensable income.
The timing and phasing must be carefully considered for their impact on current employees who have made assumptions for their retirements.
Increasing the retirement age for public safety employees should be approached with caution due the physical demands and danger of the profession. The retirement age should be 55, not 57.
We must work together to ensure that whatever form pension reform ultimately takes, it is not one that places the public's safety in jeopardy by spurring an exodus of our most experienced law enforcement personnel.
Scott R. Seaman is president of California Police Chiefs Association.