An event held at Thomas Jefferson School of Law on April 10 was something like a town hall meeting - it was presented by TJSL’s Center for Law and Social Justice and the Center on Policy Initiatives.
A group of citizens and students gathered to hear two of the three authors of Paradise Plundered, a book that details the fiscal crisis and its effects on the governance of the city of San Diego.
“We are the Rodney Dangerfield of cities,” said Steve Erie, a UC San Diego political science professor and one of the authors. “We get no respect,” he added, referring to the years of fiscal mismanagement in San Diego during the past 15 years. That led San Diego to be dubbed by the media as “Enron by the Sea.”
Erie and his co-author, Vladimir Kogan, a graduate student at UC San Diego, laid out the history of the fiscal crisis - which basically boils down to the mis-handling by city government of the pension system, creating huge deficits through underfunding.
One reason for the crisis is that city fathers have been loath to raise taxes. “San Diego has been known as an anti-tax hotbed from way back,” Erie said. “We are the poster child for Prop 13,” the property tax initiative passed by California voters in 1978.
The authors pointed out how service levels have been declining in San Diego for years. For example, the ratio of police officers to citizens does not compare favorably to other cities of San Diego’s size, in Erie’s opinion. And, he says our fire department is not accredited because we have too few fire stations for a city our size.
“Why is the quality of life declining so rapidly in San Diego,” asked Kogan. “You can’t understand the fiscal crisis without understanding the pension crisis. Fifteen years ago, San Diego was spending just five percent of the budget on pensions. Now it’s 20 percent.”
Kogan went over a history of the pension crisis from its roots in the era of Mayor Pete Wilson in the early 1980s. Basically, the city got its union employees to work for less in return for promises of better benefits down the road – lower pay today, larger pensions later. The city even pulled them out of Social Security and enrolled them in the pension plan. Trouble is, the city didn’t fund the pension plan adequately, according to Kogan.
Now there is a ballot measure that would put new employees in a 401K plan instead of a pension plan – but Kogan and Erie say it will cost the city even more.
Before and after the presentation, Erie and Kogan signed copies of their book.