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What would L.A. mayoral candidates do about pensions?

Four serious candidates and two possible contenders offer widely differing responses to that question. And former Mayor Richard Riordan chimes in.

August 21, 2012|Steve Lopez
  • L.A. City Hall is shown. As projected, L.A. city employee retirement costs are eating up bigger and bigger portions of the city budget, yet taxpayers still want potholes fixed and quicker response times on fire calls.
L.A. City Hall is shown. As projected, L.A. city employee retirement costs… (Los Angeles Times )

It's mid-2013, and you're the new mayor of Los Angeles.

Congratulations, but what were you thinking?

You've got a terrible mess on your hands. As projected, city employee retirement costs are eating up bigger and bigger portions of the city budget, yet taxpayers still want potholes fixed and quicker response times on fire calls.

DOCUMENT: 841 six-figure L.A. city pension

What are you going to do about it?

Rather than wait 'til next year, I thought I should ask candidates that question now, especially after I read a weekend story by my colleague David Zahniser, who reported that retirement costs for police and firefighters are expected to climb 56% in the next four years, from $506 million to $789 million. And costs for civilian employees are expected to go from $342 million to $496 million by 2016.

The four serious contenders currently in the race all came through with answers to my questions, which I'll get to in a minute. And if you want to read their full answers, we've posted them at http://lat.ms/QnYNtI. But perhaps more telling were the responses from two potential but currently undeclared candidates.

FULL TEXT: Mayoral candidates discuss city employee retirement costs

Developer Rick Caruso declined comment because "I'm not currently in the race."

Not currently in the race?

And L.A. County Supervisor Zev Yaroslavsky sent a message through a spokesman, who said he didn't know (or wouldn't say) whether his boss is going to jump into the race, but he did want me to know that whatever mess the city has created for itself, the county has done a good job of managing salaries and pension costs, while avoiding layoffs and furloughs.

Why would Yaroslavsky reach for that club if he doesn't intend to swing it, going after the fact that Eric Garcetti, Jan Perry and Wendy Greuel all supported labor contracts that now figure in the looming budgetary disaster?

The way it stands now, short of the kind of local tax hikes proposed Tuesday, retirement investments would have to start pumping gold to avoid more big cuts on top of the hacking we've already seen the last few years.

DOCUMENT: 841 six-figure L.A. city pension

Well, candidates?

Greuel's answers were a little vague, but she said she would "convene a working group representing labor, business, the City Council, experts and others.  I'm interested in building a lasting consensus, not dictating a solution that might be overturned by the courts or at the ballot box.  We will need to move beyond finger-pointing and work together to find real solutions."

One can only hope that as the campaign heats up, Greuel gets a lot more specific and never again uses the phrase "convene a working group."

Perry, who won't be as reliant on labor support as Greuel or Garcetti, was a little more hard-nosed, if also vague. She said "the current system has to change and everything needs to be on the table including pension reform and the potential privatization of some city services."

Garcetti sent the most thoughtful and detailed response, saying he had already "taken action and studied the full spectrum of pension reforms, including the retirement age, 'spiking,' 'double-dipping,' 'banking,' and other pension issues," but he added that, while changes need to be made, the script on reform shouldn't be written by "those looking to decimate the earned benefits of hard-working city employees."

Kevin James would raise the retirement age, increase contributions made by employees and force-feed the same medicine to DWP employees. And "If the Council will not agree, I will go around them and, as mayor, work to get pension reform put on the ballot."

After looking at what they all had to say, I was curious what a former mayor would make of their comments, so I called Richard Riordan, who has lately been leading the charge against the city's unsustainable retirement costs. But first we talked about the horse race.

"Greuel and Garcetti are owned by the unions," he said, "and the only reason I'd support Zev is that [the unions] don't like him."

As for current Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa — who has helped create the pension problem but also won some give-backs — Riordan called him "one of the worst mayors we've ever had" until he "surrounded himself with good people, and he's doing a lot better job."

I couldn't help but ask Riordan if he hadn't been part of the problem himself, having campaigned as mayor for a 2001 amendment that allowed public safety employees to retire at age 50, collecting as much as 90% of their salaries instead of just 70%.

"First of all, we could afford it back then. And without being defensive on it, I'm not saying I did everything right," Riordan said. "The question is, what are we going to do now?"

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