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Rewarding work

An amendment to the City Charter would improve pensions for police officers and firefighters.

February 26, 2007

IF YOU'RE BORED BY the (admittedly boring) subject of public pensions, get over it, because you'll be hearing a lot more about the topic in coming months.

And with good reason. There's a looming financial crisis as retired school, city, county and state employees claim larger chunks of public funds each year for their pensions, in part because people are living longer, in part because elected officials have been catering to the demands of employee unions. The state has a huge and growing unfunded pension liability -- meaning government could be on the hook to pay retirees money it doesn't have and isn't likely to get. Money needed for public safety and other services will go instead to support retired government workers.

Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger recently assembled a commission to advise him on pension options, with a report due the first of next year. In the meantime, Los Angeles voters are being asked to alter one of the city's three public employee pension systems, and because the change would mean bigger payouts down the road for some retirees, taxpayers should be alert. In this case, though, the changes are benign.

Charter Amendment M, a pension buyback measure on the March 6 ballot, would allow city police officers and firefighters to buy service credit for time spent in the military or other public agency. A police officer would be able to get a pension based on 15 years of service, for example, even if he only worked 12 -- as long as he pays his own contribution, and the city's, for the three years he spent in good standing with another agency.

The amount the employee has to pay would be determined by an actuarial formula. If the actuaries are right, there would be no new unfunded liability to the fire and police pension plan. More would be paid out at the back end only if the employee paid enough at the front.

Unlike gifts to public workers such as lowering the retirement age, Charter Amendment M is a responsible move, allowing police officers and firefighters to do the same thing that civilian city workers can do. Also, the police and fire pension plan is in decent shape, currently able to meet close to 100% of its future obligations.

There are plenty of things to worry about in the public pension system, but the buyback system permitted by Charter Amendment M isn't one of them. The Times recommends a "yes" vote.

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