Audience members and city officials were split as to whether they heard the answers they wanted at Monday’s town hall meeting with Lodi’s state lawmakers, especially when it came to the city’s pension obligations.
Some felt State Sen. Cathleen Galgiani, D-Stockton, and Assemblyman Richard Pan, D-Sacramento, offered a fresh perspective on reforms made by the state in 2012 and the pension problem faced by the city — which is expected to pay $16.9 million to fund its employee retirement benefits in 2020.
Others thought the two lawmakers who represent Lodi in the state Capitol were blowing political smoke, and took issue with Pan bringing a representative of a public employees union to discuss pensions.
Galgiani and Pan both said the reforms passed by state lawmakers in 2012 — which sets up a two tier-system with higher age requirements for public safety employees, caps annual benefits and prevents “double-dipping” — should help going forward. Pan said solid economic growth in cities like Lodi will help localities meet their unfunded pension liabilities going forward.
Pan then asked Terry Brennand, the senior government relations advocate for Service Employees International Union California, to speak to the audience of roughly 40 people on the issue.
Brennand said that, according to a 2010 study done by the University of Southern California and the California Public Employees Retirement System, the roughly 10,000 public retirees in San Joaquin County, whose pensions average $26,892 a year, pump $491 million into the local economy.
Rather than placing the blame for pension problems on public sector employees, Brennand said cities should work as partners with employees and their unions.
A murmur of disapproval went through the audience as Councilman Bob Johnson asked Brennand to make clear he worked for a union.
“To have a person who represents the largest municipal employees union in the state of California talk about pensions without having the opportunity for somebody from the other side to talk about the issue is totally inappropriate,” Johnson said.
Lodi resident Ed Miller said he was offended by Brennand’s presentation. He said public entities like the state and cities should have the same flexibility in offering retirement plans as private businesses, with a bulk of the responsibility for paying for their retirement placed on employees.
Brennand pointed out that he has been a pension advocate on both sides of the aisle, working in the past for San Joaquin County, the State Association of Retirement Systems and the County Treasurers and Taxpayers Association.
After the meeting, Pan brushed off criticism of his pension expert.
“Ultimately, how we’re going to solve the problem is having people work together,” Pan said. “Just remember that the public employees not only serve the city, they also live in the city. They’re interested in the city getting out of this and having the city solve the problem — not only as employees, but as residents of the city.”
That was the message Nancy Vinson, who represents city employees in American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees Council 57 in contract negotiations with the city, wanted to hear.
“I really appreciate what Dr. Pan had to say,” Vinson said. “If you don’t support the people who have a paycheck, they can’t contribute to the economy.”
For his part, Nakanishi said he appreciated Brennand’s presentation, because it gave him another perspective.
The meeting, Nakanishi said, accomplished his goal of making clear to Galgiani and Pan the problems and concerns facing Lodi.