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Public defender takes on employee pensions

April 23, 2010 6:48:15 PM PDT
A major factor in the budget crises facing municipal governments around the state is the enormous burden of employee pensions. In San Francisco, the city's public defender is the latest to join the fight to cut those costs.

San Francisco's public defender has been leading the charge against the police crime lab, but now Jeff Adachi is about to make a different case -- that the city needs to be defended against skyrocketing employee pension costs.

"This year it's $525 million, that's bill to taxpayers, next year it's $625 million, the year after that it's $675 million, so at a certain point, the city's going to go bankrupt," Adachi said.

A review commissioned by the city shows a gloomy financial forecast with the city paying up to $900 million four years from now; almost one-seventh of its budget.

The supervisors have put an amendment on the June ballot. Measure D, sponsored by Supervisor Sean Elsbernd, would change city charter to require future hires pay more into the fund, change the formula for how the new hires' pension is calculated and tighten rules to ensure the city contributes annually to the fund.

"Is it as far as we need to go? Absolutely not. We have a number of steps to take, but this is a step in the right direction," Elsbernd said.

But Adachi wants to go further now. He says current employees need to shoulder a bigger share, not just future hires.

Adachi is about to launch a petition drive to put his own charter amendment on the November ballot. Under his plan all workers would contribute 9-10 percent of their salaries. Right now, most employees pay 7.5 percent.

But some contribute nothing, like Muni operators, who are among the nation's highest paid transit workers. They say it is fair because they gave up pay increases and in return the city agreed to cover pension costs.

"Everybody thinks we get this, we get that?we're just trying to work, we're in a real difficult situation," Muni operator Andre LaFond said.

Adachi's proposal would also increase employees' health insurance payments.

Adachi acknowledges he may be making enemies while running for a third-term as public defender this November. And he has not yet spoken to his own staff about this. He says the issue is outside the role of their office.

"The reason I'm doing this is because I don't want to see basic services like the public defender's office obliterated, we're going to get to a point where we can't provide constitutionally-mandated services, we're not going to be able to run our court system," Adachi said.

Some political observers believe Adachi's interest in City Hall finances may point to aspirations to run the city, leading to questions about a possible run for mayor.

"Right now my focus is getting this charter amendment done; if we don't' do something there's not going to be a city to run in a couple of years," Adachi said.

Adachi's expects that ballot measure to win approval from the city attorney's office early next week. He will need 47,000 signatures by June for it to qualify for the November ballot.


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