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Public Pension Debate Heats Up

Pensions are a touchy subject these days, mainly because anyone with a 401(k)-type plan is dealing with the shock of opening statements that show in black and white just how much their hard-earned savings have shrunk.

So reporting on public employee pensions is a tricky business, with resentment running rampant among taxpayers, who see themselves as subsidizing guaranteed benefits for someone else.

But my goal in reporting how much our cities around the county are paying into pension funds is not to fuel that resentment. It is to add data to the public dialogue on what to do.

If cities are paying a growing share of the available money into meeting their pension commitments, public services will be affected. Services are already being affected by falling revenues. At some point the public needs to decide what is a reasonable amount to pay for decent public services, provided by people who get a decent salary and benefits.

If the decision is made to privatize services, the risk is that companies will pay their employees the lowest possible wage with no health care or pensions. That will come back to bite communities later, as they have to subsidize health care and shore up the safety net for the aging population. It is obviously better if cities have residents who can support themselves with decent wages and pensions, and contribute to the economy.

But the current trend of falling revenues and rising expenses is not going to just go away when this economic downturn is over. Cities have been watching this trend for some time and the downturn has only hastened the hard choices.

There probably are more cuts to city services that can be made before pension payments become untenable. Perhaps taxpayers will wake up to the need to pay more for a decent quality of life in their community. And maybe, just maybe, the state will stop cutting into city revenues.

But the best time to make decisions is BEFORE cities start going the way many companies have already gone, and threaten bankruptcy. City employees have an interest in keeping their employer healthy, because having decent police protection, parks and libraries is as important to them as it is for everyone else. &

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