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New City Councilmembers Contemplate Benefits

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Aired 4/19/09

Like anyone starting a new job, the four new San Diego city council members who’ll be sworn in next Monday are signing up for their salary and benefits. Public employee benefits are increasingly under scrutiny as the city budget tightens. Some council members are considering whether to set an example and forego some benefits. KPBS reporter Alison St John has more.

  Incoming Council Members
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District 1 - Sherri Lightner (Photo by Nathan Gibbs/KPBS)

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District 3 - Todd Gloria
(Photo by Nathan Gibbs/KPBS)

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District 5 - Carl DeMaio
(Photo by Nathan Gibbs/KPBS)

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District 7 - Marti Emerald
(Photo from marti4sandiego.com)

 Councilwoman elect Marti Emerald is getting ready to take over from Jim Madaffer as the representative for District 5. She sat down with a city’s benefits administrator recently. 

Emerald : "The city is generous, very generous. I was surprised at how generous these benefits are.

 

Emerald has spent more than two decades working in the private sector as a TV journalist. There, she says, she regularly made co-payments into her health and pension benefit plan.

 

Emerald:  Here, gee, it’s all taken care of.

 

Emerald says San Diego city elected officials with a family are given about $12,000 a year to spend on their choice of benefits.

 

Emerald :  And if we don’t spend all the money that we’re allowed to spend, the city will put it into a 401 k for us, and that’s more generous than I’ve seen in private industry, and  so there may be places where we’re going to have to revisit some of the benefits.

 

Councilman elect Carl DeMaio will replace Brian Maienschein next week. He calculates that fringe benefits – that includes things like sick leave, vacation days, health insurance and workers comp – for all employees  at the city of San Diego make up 62 percent of payroll costs.

 

DeMaio : The  National Government average, according to  the department of labor stats,  is 36 percent for state and local government. For the private sector it’s 30 percent. So the city of San Diego has twice the fringe benefit rate.

 

DeMaio says most people who get health and pension benefits have to contribute something to them every month. Most city employees do contribute more now than they used to towards their pension plans. 

 

DeMaio draws a direct connection between city employee pension contributions and what the city can afford in services for residents.

 

DeMaio: If you required for example, every city employee to pay $75 a month out of their pocket as a contribution towards the employer cost of health insurance, that would have saved every single library that was on the chopping block last week. "

 

DeMaio, who will be the youngest person on the council and who has already earned substantial sums in the private sector, says he will forego his city pension altogether.   

 

DeMaio :  " I’m not taking the pension, and that’s saving us $26,000 a year.

 

DeMaio plans to roll that money back into the infrastructure fund for his district, more money to fix potholes.

 

He’s not the first to do that. Council President Scott Peters also rolled much of his salary into District One’s budget.

 

Peter’s successor, Sherri Lightner, is not planning to forego her benefits. But all four new council members have said they will give up one benefit.

 

Gloria: "I’m not accepting a car allowance.

 

That’s Todd Gloria, taking over from Toni Atkins. The car allowance is worth more than 9 thousand a year, enough for almost 20,000 miles of travel.  The new council members say they’ll submit mileage forms instead.

 

Gloria says he’s still considering how to spend his benefit money, but he’s not talking about foregoing it.  His salary as Assemblywoman Susan Davis’s chief of staff was higher then the 75,000 he will earn as a city councilman. 

 

Gloria : It’s a pay cut for me, it’s a pay cut for everybody --every staff member whose coming to work for me  each person is taking a pay cut to come work for me . This is public service no-one is here to get rich."

 

That has always been the rationale for generous benefits: public servants earn less than they could in the private sector.

 

Marti Emerald says benefits do need to be maintained at city hall, but she favors more employee contributions.

 

Emerald : So we’ve got to find where we really need those benefits, and where we can offer people an opportunity to have coverage, but they’ve got to step up some too.

 

Emerald, who was backed by the employee unions, knows the council will have a tough time wringing concessions out of the labor.

 

Emerald: Here’s our opportunity, going in, to set the example, each and every one of us.

 

But Emerald says the city doesn’t give her the option of contributing more money towards  her own benefits. … she can either take them  - or leave them.

 

Alison St John, KPBS News.

 

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