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Double Drain: Program Pays Cops Pensions While Still on the Force 

Wednesday, Apr 13 2011
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Once entrenched, groups' benefits become entitlements. And they are defended with even more vehemence.

Lost among the dazzlingly complex arguments about actuarial reports or department staffing or city politics is the obvious question about DROPs: If you have to ply relatively young workers with spectacular rewards to keep them from retiring with yearly payments all but equal to their salaries, haven't you inexorably proven the system is in ruins?

"The whole program is absurd," says Carl DeMaio, a San Diego councilman who has waged war against that city's DROP. "It's really an extension of a dysfunctional and unsustainable pension program. It's snake oil from the start." Pension expert Girard Miller refers to DROPs as a "Mad Hatter meets Rube Goldberg scheme. ... The mere existence of a DROP plan should signal that something is wrong with the pension plan," he wrote in Governing magazine. "The idea of providing incentives to seniority workers to keep them in service — because their pension plan encourages a life of leisure well before age 60 — is a sign the pension benefit is simply too rich."

To put it mildly, you do not find public figures talking this way in San Francisco, with the predictable exception of Public Defender Jeff Adachi. "The idea of a person being able to collect both a pension and a salary is just wrong, y'know?" says San Francisco's foremost pension crusader — who also happens to be involved in an ongoing beef with the police department and its union.

San Francisco supervisors — who will ultimately decide DROP's fate — are not willing to make an Adachi-like blanket statement. SF Weekly contacted every supe. We couldn't find one who wasn't waiting for the controller's pending analysis before deciding on the future of the program. "If you have experienced officers doing a good job, it's worth making an effort to keep them around," says Supervisor Scott Wiener, who supported DROP at its inception. "If you're keeping around officers who are really ready to move on and are taking advantage of the program to have a benefit, that's not a good thing. In the end, is this benefiting the department and taxpayer or not?"

It's a good question — but one that could well go beyond the scope of the pending analysis. While the controller will certainly plumb the cost-neutrality of DROP, the report may not touch on its efficacy. Police Commission president Thomas Mazzucco says he's been asking for years about the caliber of personnel enrolled in DROP, and what measure of productivity the department is getting out of its participants. He's never gotten any answers : "There are not a lot of controls, not a lot of performance measures," he says. The controller's report may not enlighten him.

Who participates in DROP and how they spend their days isn't just a sore point for police commissioners. Department higher-ups are traditionally cool on the program, as they have no say regarding who can enroll. Several messages for acting Chief Jeff Godown and his immediate predecessors, George Gascón and Heather Fong, were not returned. But two former San Francisco chiefs were puzzled by DROP. "It's always better to look at a person's work record and how the community perceives them and have some sort of selection," says Frank Jordan, chief from 1986 to 1990. "There has to be some fair approach toward screening people who want to stay on for an extra three years, not just allowing anyone to do it." Adds Fred Lau, chief from 1996 to 2002, "From my experience, it would be invaluable for someone to fully evaluate the efficiency and effectiveness of the persons in the program. That would make sense to anybody."

It would also lead to a surefire discrimination lawsuit, assures Carol Calhoun, a lawyer specializing in pensions and DROPs. Like every plan across the nation she can think of, San Francisco's has no requirements for participation other than age and experience.

Barring a truly excoriating or beatific report from the controller, the supes will have to put on their thinking caps. It's a situation the plainspoken Delagnes encapsulates well: "You know what? If [the controller] stands up there on April 15 and says 'It ain't working!' then it's over. If they say, 'It's a good deal, we think it's saving money,' they probably will keep it. And if they say it's too close to call, then [the supes] gotta make up their minds."

Indeed they will. And the board's decision on a matter that touches on labor relations, exploding pensions, and power politics could go a long way toward redefining just what is meant by "business as usual" around here.

About The Author

Joe Eskenazi

Joe Eskenazi

Joe Eskenazi was born in San Francisco, raised in the Bay Area, and attended U.C. Berkeley. He never left. "Your humble narrator" was a staff writer and columnist for SF Weekly from 2007 to 2015. He resides in the Excelsior with his wife, 4.3 miles from his birthplace and 5,474 from hers.


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