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George Boardman: Pension burden threatens to crowd out services taxpayers expect

George Boardman
Columnist
George Boardman
John Hart/jhart@theunion.com | The Union

Observations from the center stripe: Chutzpah edition

REMEMBER WASHINGTON Mutual, the poster boy for bad loan practices during the real estate bubble that led to the country’s biggest bank failure in 2008? Two of its former executives are still trying to collect golden parachutes worth $23.1 million … HATEFUL SPEECH on the Internet won’t be curbed anytime soon now that the U.S. Supreme Court reversed the conviction of a man who posted a threat to kill his estranged wife and others … I DON’T like the word “practice,” as in medical practice. I don’t want a doctor practicing on me … I DON’T have a problem with former Olympic Gold Medallist Bruce Jenner becoming Caitlyn Jenner, but spare me the rush to exploit this in our media-obsessed culture. First, there’s the Vanity Fair cover. Now, we hear Caitlyn will make her first public appearance at the ESPY Awards … THE BIG wheels who run international soccer have been encouraging the U.S. for years to get more involved. They should be more careful about what they hope for ...

It’s the time of the year when counties, cities and school districts approve budgets for the new fiscal year, a subject that causes most peoples’ eyes to glaze over and separates the true good government wonks from the rest of us.

Elected officials will reassure you they’re doing a good job of being prudent with the public’s money while providing the core and quality-of-life services taxpayers want. In the case of the Nevada County Board of Supervisors, it’s their time to shine.

The supes’ No. 1 stated priority is to “Maintain county’s financial stability and core services in light of economic conditions.” If you wade through County Executive Rick Haffey’s discussion of the 2015-16 budget, you’ll be reminded several times that the supervisors are doing a heck of a job in this area.

But there are clouds on the horizon in the form of ever increasing contributions to CalPERS, the state’s gigantic, underfunded pension plan for public employees who aren’t school teachers. The county has been ordered to pay an additional $1.3 million a year for the next five years to help cover the CalPERS shortfall.

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The county has added $500,000 to its pension reserve fund — now over $3 million — and Martin Polt, the county’s chief financial officer, assured the supervisors last week, “We continue to be vigilant to mitigate pension costs.”

The county isn’t the only entity grappling with this problem. Grass Valley is using $300,000 it saved through a government reorganization to offset increases to CalPERS and “other post employment benefits.” Nevada City, which can’t find the money to properly staff its fire department, will also have to ante up more for employee pensions.

California governments are increasingly facing the prospect of curtailing services to pay for pensions, a process known as “crowd out.” The subject gets a thorough discussion in a recent report by researcher Stephen Eide of the Manhattan Institute.

“In recent years, California municipalities have seen retirement benefit costs soar at a rate above that of taxes, fees and charges …,” Eide wrote. “Balanced budget requirements mandate that when costs grow more rapidly than revenues, something has to give. All too often, that means reductions in government services.”

Census Bureau data for 2004-12 show that growth in pension costs for local governments outpaced spending on core services, such as police and fire, and quality-of-life services, such as parks and libraries. With California facing an unfunded liability of $191 billion for worker and teacher retirement benefits, the pressure’s not going to let up any time soon.

Our elected officials know we have a big problem that will just get worse, but lack the courage to tackle it. It remains to be seen how bad the situation has to get before they fear the voters more than they fear the public employee and teachers unions.

Life without Facebook?

Do you not exist if you don’t have a Facebook profile? That’s the existential question I asked myself recently after I was apparently rejected by Nevada County Peeps because I lack a profile.

Peeps is a growing online community that discusses issues of interest to Nevada County residents. Since I like to know what people are thinking about when I consider subjects for this column, I decided to sign up.

That prompted the following email from a woman who identified herself as Ann Mayo Hobbs, a Peeps admin: “We received your request to join … We can’t tell from your Facebook profile: What’s your connection to Nevada County? If no response is provided in a few days, the request will be ignored.”

Well, I don’t have a Facebook profile. If you type in “George Boardman,” you’ll find a handsome fellow who’s considerably younger than me. I’ve never met him, but we could be related — Boardmans first arrived in North America around 1620, so there’s a lot of branches on the family tree.

I’m not a willing participant on Facebook because I would feel compelled to keep my page current, and I’d just be wasting more time online. I know there are a lot of discussion groups on Facebook, but I can do as much discussing as I want on any number of blogs.

While my daughter will snicker when she reads this sentence, I’m not a technology troglodyte. I worked for technology companies for many years, I get it. I look at all new technology and embrace those advances that make my life easier or more interesting. At the same time, I like to keep things simple and not clutter up my life with gadgets or distractions I don’t need.

I have never tweeted or texted, and I don’t plan to. My cell phone is so old, it’s only good for making and receiving phone calls. Email is fast enough for me and while I have a laptop computer, it only leaves the house when I’m going to be out of town for at least two nights.

I explained to the Peeps people I don’t have a Facebook profile, and I’ve heard nothing from them since then. If being rejected is the price I have to pay for my attitude toward technology, so be it. Besides, I’m like Groucho Marx: “I refuse to join any club that would have me as a member.”

George Boardman lives at Lake of the Pines. His column is published Mondays by The Union.


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