Last week, City Auditor Courtney Ruby released a report on the dismal state of Oakland's unfunded liabilities.
The report warned that residents of Oakland could expect more potholes and fewer police officers. A dire prediction indeed given that every candidate running for mayor has placed public safety, and rightly so, at the forefront of their campaign agenda.
Far be it from me to suggest any of the candidates alter their strategy, but the looming shadow of growing unfunded liabilities does suggest that any plans to make the city safer cannot be achieved unless there is a corresponding plan for a problem that not only plagues Oakland, but the entire state.
How can one discuss a vision for public safety, economic development or student achievement without factoring the impact of this report?
The report states that Oakland's payments to the state pension system jumped from $37 million in 2003 to $89 million in 2012. But one need only drive down any number of streets in Oakland or require police services for anything other than violence to substantiate the report's findings.
I recently cracked a wheel on my car because of a massive pothole on one of Oakland's busier thoroughfares. For four consecutive weeks I, along with several neighbors, have called the police to address a problem in our community to no avail.
H.L Mencken may have best summed up the problem with pensions, "For every complex problem there is an answer that is clear, simple, and wrong."
Pensions are an easy political topic, a significant issue that draws the ire of those who do not work for government who are often endowed with just enough misinformation to get the emotional juices flowing.
It is tailor-made for oversimplification, which inevitably will lead to frustration while enhancing the problem.
The challenge is not the residue of chicanery, but of good faith. The actuarial table used when these contracts were negotiated is no longer applicable.
Oakland's challenge is not unlike the problem with Social Security or that of General Motors -- a bygone assumption that there would be more people paying into the system than people going out.
Bear in mind that pensions only represent one part of this conundrum. There are health care and disability costs that also must be addressed.
It is immoral to continue down a path on which taxpayers cannot expect basic services from the city, but it is equally so not to make good on previous commitments.
But how do we move beyond the stalemate of unions' relying on legal precedent and elected officials supported by public dissatisfaction?
Short of bankruptcy, where no one wins, the only viable solution is compromise on both sides. City officials and the public unions read the same data. It is not in the long-term interest of either to continue on a greasy road that ends at the cliff.
There can be no quick fix for a matter that was decades in the making. For those who are not vested, pushing back retirement age, looking at future contributions amounts, who contributes, basing pension benefits on an average of the three highest years, are areas for consideration.
The exact methodology may vary among the candidates, but the one area where there should be common agreement is publicly televised discussions.
This will ensure that both sides are putting forth their best efforts. Moreover, it will serve to disabuse the public of misinformation.
This was the mistake in the recent BART negotiations serving only to fuel public mistrust.
It is always dangerous to discuss pensions during an election year, when the tendency to blame and pander supersedes meaningful discourse. But the failure to discuss pensions will leave gaping holes in any proposal to improve the city.
Oakland does not need candidates who possess the right answers, but at least one willing to raise difficult questions and demonstrate the fortitude to lead.
Byron Williams is a contributing columnist. Contact him at 510-208-6417 or firstname.lastname@example.org.