Guest View: Union reforms offered to SBC

Sometime in August, state legislators are expected to pass pension reforms aimed at making our public retirement system more sustainable and less vulnerable to abuses.

The reforms would affect every public worker in California, and we can only hope that the changes will address the fundamental secure retirement crisis in America.

Today, the majority of working people – including 6.3 million private sector California workers – have no pension and little to no savings, causing many retirees to rely almost entirely on Social Security, which by itself isn’t enough to keep them out of poverty.

While some politicians are espousing inflammatory rhetoric that public pensions bankrupt the government, here in San Benito County, employees would rather engage in something more constructive for our community.

Workers represented by Service Employees International Union Local 521 have stepped forward with a pension reform package that offers real immediate savings to the county, which faces a $1.7 million budget deficit.

We are offering not only to contribute our full share of the employee cost of the pension plan, but also to pick up more than half the county’s cost. Coupled with a tiered retirement benefit package for new employees, we estimate this brings the county an immediate savings of at least $1.25 million and millions more in future years.

This would be in addition to nearly 8% in cuts from furloughs and salary freezes. In total, SEIU members have offered more than 20% in employee concessions.  

Offering the county these savings will cost the workers and their families dearly. And yet, we stand ready to pitch in and provide the county millions of dollars in concessions to reform our pension structure.

In return, we want to see the board of supervisors: prioritize funding of vital public services; eliminate government waste and its top-heavy bureaucracy; and end the practice of hiring over-priced private contractors to do work already performed by county employees.

Our proposal would balance the county budget and save jobs and services. Thus far, the county has rejected our proposal to protect services and ensure accountability to taxpayers.

This week the board of supervisors held public hearings to review a budget plan from the County Administrative Officer that consists solely of cuts to jobs and services, with no real long-term solutions, no real structural reform.

Eliminating services the community needs is not a long-term solution.

Just a few years ago, we had nearly 500 full-time-employee positions countywide. Today, it’s less than 400. You can look around and see that public services and programs are affected when workers aren’t there to do the work. The current budget plan comes with more pink slips for library workers, public safety workers, and support staff from a host of other vital departments. This while management remains untouched.

It is past time for change: the public requires government accountability and transparency. Excessive management perks and closed-door decision-making needs to end in San Benito County.

Earlier this year, under growing public pressure, the board of supervisors capped managers’ vacation accruals that have cost taxpayers millions of dollars. More recently, the county moved to curb department heads’ vehicle allowance. These reforms are the result of SEIU members working with the community to ensure government accountability to taxpayers.

Now we are challenging the supervisors to enact true reforms with lasting impact on the county’s finances. More important, we are challenging the supervisors to stand up for San Benito County residents by protecting services to the public.

Sacramento is going to adopt statewide pension reform later this summer but it is a safe bet that none of the recommended changes will go as far as the proposal the county employees have put before the board in terms of employer-employee distribution of costs.

We are ready to help fill the budget deficit and protect public services. We are serious about not seeing San Benito go broke and become the next San Bernardino.

And we are ready to lead. Is the San Benito County Board of Supervisors ready to join us?

Martha Booker is the San Benito County Chapter President of the Service Employees International Union, Local 521. Denise Quintana is the Chapter Vice President.

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