IF VOTERS want to end the infamous pension spiking at the San Ramon Valley Fire Protection District, they should start by replacing firefighters on the board of the debt-ridden agency with representatives loyal to residents and taxpayers.
As reported here last year, two fire chiefs, a deputy chief and an assistant chief who retired in the previous seven years were bringing home annual pensions of roughly a quarter-million dollars or more. That far exceeded the base salaries they were earning during their final year of employment.
In response to our reporting, fire district directors, who had approved an expensive new pension spiking option just two years earlier, took small steps to reduce the excesses for future retirees. They could have, and should have, gone much further. From rank-and-file firefighters to management, pension spiking is still prevalent at the district. For example, unused vacation and holidays can still be used to boost pensions as much as 20 percent.
On top of that, managers can fatten retirement pay by cashing in unused "administrative leave" and receiving pension credit for standby pay. In other words, not only are they paid extra for items that should be part of the job for which they already receive substantial salaries, they're also using those add-ons to boost their pensions.
It's time to inject some sanity. But, get this: For the past two years the fire board has been run by firefighters. That's right: Three of the five board members work in other Bay Area fire departments and belong to the same parent union as the San Ramon Valley firefighters. When it comes to pension changes, and when it comes to negotiations, they are bargaining with the same union that represents them.
It's time for residents and taxpayers to take back their department. Nick Dickson, one of the firefighters on the board, is not seeking re-election. Another, Jennifer Price, is running for a third term. Both seats should be filled with residents without conflicts.
Price has another problem. Her husband is a brother of the fire chief, Richard Price. While she has abstained from issues involving his hiring and compensation, she passes judgment on his policy recommendations. We think highly of the chief, who takes pension problems seriously. But he needs to push harder for change. He shouldn't be constrained by his firefighter sister-in-law.
For those reasons, we endorse engineer Glenn Umont and financial adviser Michael Marchi, who will put taxpayers' interests above firefighters'. (The fourth candidate on the ballot, Walter Welti, dropped out and is supporting Umont and Marchi.) Umont and Marchi have been active participants at board meetings, understand the district's issues and recognize the long-term fiscal plight of the district.
There's a lot to be concerned about. Pension spiking is just the tip of the iceberg.
The high-wealth district has very adequate property tax revenues, yet it has run up astounding debt. The pension and retiree health funds are $132 million short. Put another way, the district would have to devote 21/2 years of income to those two programs just to bring them to where they should be today.
Tough decisions must be made to return fiscal sanity to the district. Yet, Jennifer Price at first told us that, on pension reform, the board had "already done the things we can do legally."
That's simply not so, as she acknowledged when pressed further. There are many changes the board can still, and must, make to reduce pension spiking. But first voters need representatives who understand where their loyalties should lie.