It’s a matter of fairness
By Scott Malsin, Vice Mayor
(Third of a three?part series)
Culver City is at a philosophical crossroads. We’re faced with a serious question and the way we answer it will say a lot about us. It is: Should the city protect the well?being of its older workers by honoring its commitments to them or not?
As I wrote in my first two articles in this series (available on this newspaper’s website or at CulverCity2020.org), changes in the city’s retiree health plan that go into effect on Jan. 1, 2012, are likely to force many valuable employees to retire before then. The impact on our community will take many forms, from slower emergency response times and less personal service to greater liability costs and higher turnover of employees. Those are costs which a city whose reputation centers on its high level of service should avoid incurring.
But this is not just about the services we enjoy; it’s about the kind of community we are. There are many employees who will find themselves better off retiring than continuing to work. It makes no sense to force them out – they’ll leave with their benefits plus we’ll be paying their less?experienced replacements new benefits. We won’t be saving money; we’ll be spending more. But there are many who can neither afford to retire nor to lose their benefits. Imagine yourself in their place. You come to work here later in life in part because of the security your benefits will provide – benefits that had been offered and honored for decades. You’ve planned your retirement based on them. You have a modest pension and no margin of error. And then the rug gets pulled out from under you.
Since I began this public conversation, city workers have come to me to say, “That’s me you’re talking about.” Don’t take my word for it, ask them for yourself. You don’t have to go far. They work in your neighborhood. They may live on your street. Of course, this isn’t just a local issue – we’re seeing it played out across America. I don’t know about you, but I don’t like what I’m seeing. It’s neither fair nor right to change the rules of the game when it’s too late for someone to make up the ground they’ve lost.
Culver City has a powerful sense of community. Our workers feel it and help sustain it. Shouldn’t we treat them as we would wish to be treated? Shouldn’t we do our best to honor the commitments we have made to them? I think so, most particularly in the case of our older workers.
This is a question that goes right to the heart of what our “small town” is all about. A 2011 nationwide survey by the non?partisan, nonprofit Center for State and Local Government Excellence (slge.org) asked public agencies how they have modified their pension and health benefit programs to help meet their financial challenges. Less than 1% of the respondents indicated that they are implementing changes similar to those Culver City is putting in place. If Culver City was on the brink; if we had no financial reserves; if we had no options to consider, then all bets would be off. In that situation, however, even the strategy the city has adopted wouldn’t work. The amount it will cost to treat our older employees with compassion and respect is not enough to make or break the city’s financial future – not even close.
Together with my fellow councilmembers, I have been focused on careful stewardship of the city’s resources. We have developed new sources of revenue and kept our costs as low as possible. We have achieved a lot together but on this issue we see things differently. The way we answer the question I posed will say a lot about our community. I feel the answer deep in my bones. It is: Rather than breaking commitments to achieve savings that do little or nothing to ensure the city’s long?term financial stability, we should honor our word and continue our efforts to find real solutions to ensure it.
“Grandfathering in” the retiree medical benefits of long?time and older workers is a cost?effective way to protect the quality of our services and care for the well?being of vulnerable members of our “city family.” The policy our city is currently pursuing threatens both and will not save jobs or solve our financial problems. It is already taking a toll on our work force. This is a situation in which the smart choice and the right choice are one and the same.
There is still time to change the course we’re on. I urge you to call or email each and every city councilmember and tell them, “Find another way.”
You can read this essay online at culvercitynews.org and culvercity2020.org.