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Pension issues, like it or not, will drive the conversation
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The debate isn’t whether teachers, police officers, firefighters, county hospital nurses or any other public employee works hard and deserves healthy pay raises.
The issue is paying the bills.
The next four budget years for both the Manteca Unified School District and City of Manteca are going to be painful thanks to major unfunded public employee pension liabilities that are impacting virtually every government jurisdiction California including the state.
The good news is the need for the increased payments to the California Public Employees Retirement System and the California State Teachers Retirement System is being phased in over four years. The bad news is once they are phased in they likely won’t drop any time soon and — if investment returns don’t get better — will likely have to go up again.
This means the lightning rod for all the anger that will come from either public employees not getting raises they believe are big enough or from the public irked that some city project isn’t being done or that class sizes are to large will be the seven elected individuals on the Manteca Unified School District board and the five elected citizens on the Manteca City Council.
It will take courage and the patience of Job to see the school district and city through the next four years of not just the challenges imposed by pension costs skyrocketing but also dealing with significant growth issues and playing catch-up with service cutbacks either made to survive the Great Recession or from perennial inadequate funding.
Elected officials are stewards of institutions designed to serve the people. They have a fiduciary responsibility to keep costs within the lines. They also have a moral obligation to not keep kicking the can down the road so the young people we are educating today aren’t crushed tomorrow when they are handed a bloated bill to pay as taxpayers while having to deal with scaled back services.
It is clear the same-old, same-old is not going to work anymore. Elected leaders need to be wary of staff that may take the easy way out to keep things running smoothly until they exit stage left leaving the community holding the bag.
It is why decisions need to be made now and not a year from now to keep both the school district and city moving forward. Thankfully both entities have been fairly judicious with reserves to give them some wiggle room as adjustments are made.
What is really needed, though, is to take a good hard look at the cause and effects.
First and foremost an obligation was made to teachers and city workers. That obligation should be kept barring a catastrophic financial event that might send either one into bankruptcy.
In order to do that, it may require a brave new world when it comes to future hires.
In Carlon Perry’s unsuccessful 2010 campaign to regain the Manteca mayor’s seat, he smelled the smoke and yelled fire. He proposed pushing for lower pensions for new city hires and even lower pay scales for new hires. It is a tactic that the private sector has used to deal with the high cost of union contracts when trying to stay competitive.
One can’t provide services or teach children without people. And it costs money to pay people.
Current Manteca Councilman Gary Singh astutely points out evidence that not hiring staff and contracting out work is costing taxpayers more money. But then again whoever performs contract work is not receiving benefits on the city’s dime or retirement funding. Obviously the level of service as well as nimbleness at addressing community needs enter into any hiring staff or hiring a contractor decision. Upper level city management has been doing that to a degree for years. What is needed now is a bigger council say in how that strategy not just impacts the quality of life but could inadvertently increase long-range city costs by not adequately addressing needs now.
The schools also have options. A move to make high school campuses more of a resource center than a traditional school by weaving in more online offerings could reduce costs enough to make sure teaching staffing on the lower levels as well as teacher pay across the board is not impacted.
You will get no arguments from this quarter about lower student ratios being beneficial. Such a goal can be accomplished in other, less expensive ways, by employing full-time classroom aides working in concert with the professional educator.
These are just two suggestions that may or may not work. But to not look for new ways to do things and attack every spending issue as one in which jobs must be protected and pay raises of a certain level must be awarded assures that the day of reckoning will come.
More than 80 cents of every general fund dollar the city spends goes to pay, health insurance and pension costs. It is right around 90 percent for Manteca Unified.
All the name calling and finger pointing in the world — whether based on solid facts or conjuncture — won’t make the problems posed by underfunded pension liabilities go away.
The ultimate goal — despite the daunting challenges the Manteca Unified school board and Manteca City Council face — is not simply to survive but to thrive.