Friday, December 30, 2016

Excessive pensions betray the public trust

The LA Times ran a story today (December 30, 2016) entitled, "When City Retirement Pays Better than the Job." 

Featured prominently in the story are two former city managers of El Monte, California.  Former manager, James Mussenden, earns $216,000 in pension benefits.  His predecessor, Harold O. Johanson, earns more than $250,000... at age 58.  For El Monte, pension costs absorb about 28 percent of the general fund.  And as the Times notes,

"El Monte’s outsize pension bill weighs heavily on the San Gabriel Valley city of 116,000, where half the residents were born outside the United States and a quarter live below the poverty line."

There is a great deal to bother any citizen or responsible public administrator in the story, but what bothers me is the seemingly sheepish acknowledgment by the retired managers that what they are doing is wrong.  And to answer the presumably rhetorical question posed by one, "... I make too much money now, but what can I do?"

Give it back!  Instead of taking money you know you haven't earned, instead of reaping the financial benefit of a poor decision you made, let the City of El Monte use the money to provide services.  Fund a scholarship program for city managers (and other public employees) to attend ethics training.

What is it about California municipalities beginning with the outrageous example of Bell?

One of the primary responsibilities of a city manager or county administrator is to serve as a steward.  The measure of our profession is leaving a local government stronger--financially, organizationally, and ethically--than when we found it.  One of the great strengths of our position is to see clearly beyond the next election into future decades.  This is why we should be the staunchest advocates of decisions where the real effects are felt in the distant future.  No public employee is better situated to promote fully-funding a pension plan, using realistic rates of return, and ensuring that the cost of future benefits doesn't hamstring a city or county from providing core services.

I have never met Mr. Mussenden or Mr. Johanson.  Of course, I don't spend any time on golf courses or traveling Europe.  If I do, I will tell them that what they have done has hurt more than the city they were entrusted to manage.  It has damaged the profession by further diminishing public trust in local government.

Hopefully, it won't be the first time they've heard it.

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