The world tilted slightly off its axis last week. Up became down, right was wrong and rivers flowed upstream.
At a special City Council meeting -- those are the only kind called during Christmas week -- Antioch revoked the scaled-down pension benefits it had painstakingly negotiated only three months earlier and reinstated its former employee-generous retirement plan.
You read that correctly.
At a time when every city with a payroll has been applying a tourniquet to gushing retirement costs, this is roughly the equivalent of driving the wrong way into one-way traffic. But city officials insist the move is not as outlandish as it seems.
"I think this is the right decision for us at this time," Mayor Wade Harper said. "We have to think outside the box."
You see, the city needs experienced cops. Crime is up, police staffing is down and seasoned officers -- lateral hires -- are hard to attract. When laterals change jobs, they assume the benefits offered by their new city. Those will be whatever are in place Dec. 31, before reduced plans for new employees become state law on New Year's Day. Hence, the end-of-year urgency.
Antioch's recently negotiated "3 percent at 55" plan for public safety employees, which calculates pension benefits starting at age 55 by multiplying 3 percent of final pay times years of service, has been a hiring obstacle, according to police Chief Allan Cantando. He said returning to the "3 percent at 50" formula would put the city on equal footing with cities that offer earlier retirement."I've talked to other police officers," Harper said. "They believe it's huge as far as recruiting officers."
On the one hand, you can see the logic. Why would a veteran cop who had 3-at-50 benefits at another city come to Antioch, where he'd have to work five years longer before he could retire? On the other hand, if the new guy's foremost concern is how soon he can retire, is he really the person you want?
Although only two residents spoke during public comment -- hey, only two dozen people were in the audience -- they clearly had reservations about the plan. One cited the employee concessions negotiated in recent years to save the city from bankruptcy.
"Now you say you need to give those back to entice new hires to Antioch?" he asked.
Another questioned why Antioch had to hire veteran cops from other cities at higher costs. Why not recruit rookies, with reduced benefits, and train them as needed?
"We've been hit sideways so many times by criminal activity that we're being duped into a circumstance of adding more debt to our city," he said.
Harper, a former cop, said there is an enormous performance gap between rookies and seasoned officers. Veterans arrive not only trained for the field but they bring years of experience to share.
"We need master officers who are going to be mentors," he said, although he conceded that there's no proof a better pension will lure them to Antioch.
Councilman Gary Agopian, who has long battled the city's budget woes and was the lone vote against the measure, wasn't convinced this is a magic bullet. "It didn't win me over," he said, "but now that it's done, I think the way we're implementing it is good."
By that, he meant there is a cap on the plan. The council resolved that it would be implemented for only 18 months or for five new police hires.
Then up will be up, down will be down and rivers will flow as they should.
Until the next time Antioch spins off its axis.
Contact Tom Barnidge at firstname.lastname@example.org.