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Tuesday, February 8, 2011

San Francisco Pensions: Wait, it Gets Worse!

Posted By on Tue, Feb 8, 2011 at 12:39 AM


There's a very dark old joke about a woman being informed that the baby she just delivered is not exactly healthy. He doesn't have any arms. He doesn't have any legs. He has no body. He has no face. In fact, he is just an ear.

But it gets worse. The ear is deaf.

And that brings us to San Francisco's ongoing pension situation. Whenever you think you've got it figured out, it always ends up being worse than you thought. Our ear is always deaf. And it has hideous piercings.

"Pension reform" is something politicians and labor leaders are now endeavoring to talk about. Doing something about it -- something substantive -- is a development that may or may not occur before the next cataclysmic earthquake (gambling addicts not satiated by the Super Bowl might want to think about setting up a betting line).

One thing that would help is accurate reporting of the amount San Francisco will kick into pensions in the forthcoming year. While both major newspapers have thrown around the total of $375 million -- which is plenty high -- the actual figure is nearly $50 million more.

click to enlarge ear_model.jpg
As SF Weekly reported last month, in addition to the pending $378 million contribution to the San Francisco Employee Retirement System, the city is also due to pick up $22.8 million for the dwindling number of San Francisco workers who don't pay into their pensions and $21.7 million to the state pension system, largely for sheriff's deputies.

Tens of millions of dollars more than an already astronomical figure? How could this get worse? Here's how. You're paying for it -- in more ways than one.

Only around 60 percent of the millions headed to SFERS is coming out of the city's general fund. Yet more than 90 percent of the money headed to the state pension system is coming directly out of the general fund -- meaning it's being sucked away from every other discretionary task the city has. You wanted to fund that after-school program? Tough -- first we've got to make our pension payments.

And here's something even more charming. Increased pension costs from "enterprise agencies" -- that'd be the Public Utilities Commission, Muni, the airport, and the Port -- aren't siphoned completely from the general fund but, rather, right from the taxpayer.

Excess pension costs from the PUC are made up via "water ratepayers and sewer ratepayers," notes Leo Levenson, the director of the budget and analysis division in the controller's office. When airport employees' pension costs take off, the extra money is generated via airport landing fees.

The Port charges that much more for cruise ship landings (hard to sow rage with that one). And Muni makes up mounting pension costs via "parking fines and fees." That should make you feel better the next time you fail to feed the meter.

But that's the price you pay to live in San Francisco -- the city where the ear is deaf.

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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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