SAN BERNARDINO (CBSLA.com) — The city attorney of San Bernardino is under scrutiny for telling residents to “lock their doors and load their guns” during a city council meeting. The official explained that because the city is bankrupt and slashing public safety budgets people will need to start protecting themselves. City Attorney Jim Penman said he doesn’t regret what he said.
The Fall of San Bernadino
"2.5 AT 55"
By the time San Bernardino's council met behind closed doors on September 17, 2007, it was already clear the city was in trouble. Yet on this day in 2007, the city was about to raise pension benefits again, in a deal allowing non-public-safety workers to retire at age 55 with a pension equal to three-quarters of their salary. Called "2.5 at 55," it calculated annual pensions at 2.5 percentage points of final salary for each year worked - 75 percent for 30 years.
It wasn't nearly as good a deal as the one police and firefighters enjoyed - a "3 percent at 50" plan passed a year earlier. That enabled the public-safety workers to retire at 50 with a pension of up to 90% of their final salary. Regardless, "2.5 at 55" was what union negotiators had asked for, and the council was poised to rubber-stamp it.
But then something happened. And in a city which has a particularly toxic brand of politics, what transpired depends on who you talk to.
According to four people present at the meeting, Penman, the city attorney, brought a pregnant co-worker to the session. By their account, Penman's co-worker made an emotional case for an even more generous pension deal. Otherwise, she said, she would be forced to leave San Bernardino and seek work in a city with better benefits. She had her family to consider, she said.
Penman vehemently denies that any of this took place. "Welcome to San Bernardino politics," he said.
That afternoon, in public session, the council unanimously voted to award its non-safety workers 2.7% at 55 - more even than the union sought. That tiny fraction could raise the pension on a $100,000 salary by $6,000 per year. Penman, in office since 1987, earned $164,799 last year, according to city payroll data.
"In hindsight I am not proud of this vote," said Brinker, who was on the city council at the time. "The recession hit barely a year later. This was one more log on the pension bonfire."
Meanwhile, San Bernardino continued to boost wages along with benefits. The average salary for a full-time San Bernardino firefighter in 1997 was $75,610, adjusted for inflation into 2010 dollars. By 2010, it was nearly $147,000, according to a Reuters analysis of Census Bureau data.
City wages were a runaway train, according to the Management Partners report. The city charter automatically calculated police and firefighter pay using a formula linked to wages offered by comparably sized cities - most of which were much wealthier than San Bernardino. Efforts to amend the charter were strongly opposed by the safety unions and voted down by the council earlier this year.
City workers took advantage of compensation rules, common among public employees in California, that made retirement deals even better. Key to this was boosting an employee's eve-of-retirement wages, which form the basis of the pension calculations.
Mike Conrad, chief of the fire department from 2006 to 2012, said he saw managers negotiate a promotion in their final year, to boost their final salary. It was not uncommon for someone to move into a position with a $30,000 annual pay rise shortly before retirement, he said.
Retiring employees are also able to extract big one-time "cash outs." In San Bernardino, eight hours per month of unused sick time can be rolled over and saved year after year, without limit. Come retirement, 50 percent of the total can be taken in cash. The same goes for unused vacation time: up to 460 accrued hours of vacation - nearly three months of salary - can be cashed in at the fire department, Conrad said.
The police have a similar deal. In 2009, patrol lieutenant Richard Taack retired at the age of 59, after 37 years of service. He took home $389,727 that year, including $194,820 in unused sick time and $33,721 for unused vacation time, according to city payroll records. Shortly after Taack retired - on an annual lifetime pension of $128,000 - he was hired part-time by Penman's city attorney's office, at $32 an hour.
POTHOLES AND EMPTY LOTS
Taack's 2009 income was nearly double that of the city's entire street-sweeping department. In 2011, overtime pay alone for the police department - $2,766,175 - exceeded the total payroll of 12 other San Bernardino city departments, according to the Reuters analysis of payroll data. Taack didn't respond to requests for comment.
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