The facts behind pension reform and Ventura's sales measure
By Christy Weir 08/20/2009
Ventura is a community that isn’t afraid to lead. On many issues, from protecting agricultural land to green practices to focusing on urban infill development, we have taken a leadership role in the state of California. Last year, we were one of the first municipalities to critically examine every city expense and cut the $11 million dollars necessary to balance our city budget as a result of the economic downturn. Our top-level managers agreed to a 10 percent reduction in pay. Forty city jobs were eliminated. One of the most controversial steps we took was to negotiate with all of our employee unions to take at least a 5 percent cut in compensation for 15 months. For the firefighters, this meant postponing the enhanced retirement benefits that had been approved for future implementation by our City Council on a 4-3 vote prior to the recession. The cooperation of Ventura’s city employees sets a positive example for the entire state of California.
Public safety is one of the basic responsibilities of government, and we take that role seriously. We value our police and fire personnel and the vital part they play in keeping our community safe and prosperous. We believe that Ventura deserves outstanding police officers and firefighter/paramedics providing protection around the clock. To retain and attract outstanding individuals requires us to be competitive with other agencies. However, the statewide pension system for state, county, school district and local governments is not financially sustainable. I believe Ventura can be a leader in pension reform.
That likely means moving from “defined benefit” plans (which guarantee a certain retirement income and are increasingly costly to taxpayers) to “defined contribution” plans (which are more fiscally sustainable) for new employees. Defined benefit systems were once the standard in private corporations, but almost all have moved toward defined contribution approaches. Government will need to make the same transition for new hires.
On July 20, the Ventura City Council voted unanimously to work toward the goal of pension reform by appointing a compensation task force made up of City Council members, city staff and community members. Its charge is to look closely at this issue and make recommendations to the council this fall.
Another element of Ventura’s economic stability plan will be up to the voters in November. The Council recently approved putting a half-cent local sales tax measure on the ballot to give the taxpayers a choice about city government funding and services. Currently, only 16 percent of the sales and property taxes you pay stays in Ventura. The rest goes for state programs, county services and local school districts. Now the state is taking millions of dollars more of our city’s shrinking revenues to make up for its own budget crisis.
Ventura has a balanced budget — the City Council has made cuts to live within our means. But with these cuts, the high quality of services that our community deserves, such as repaving our deteriorating streets, repairing our sidewalks, keeping Wright library open and maintaining our public safety at current levels, is at risk. This local, temporary half-cent sales tax increase would generate more than $8 million each year to pay for vital services right here in Ventura.
Because this is a city tax, not a state tax, 100 percent of the money will stay in our community — the state cannot touch it. It is a protected, local source of income that is not subject to the state’s fiscal irresponsibility.
The average cost for each resident will be less than $75 per year because out-of-town visitors account for much of our sales tax revenue. The tax will automatically end in four years.
The City Council-adopted spending plan for the new revenue will allocate funds for services that matter most to our residents:
Repair streets and maintain parks.
Keep Wright Library open and improve library services.
Restore and improve our emergency response times through full use of Medic Engine 10.
Supplement our police gang prevention unit.
Increase the Downtown foot patrols.
Keep our beaches clean and safe.
The spending plan does not include increases in compensation.
If you’d like to set up a neighborhood meeting to speak with me about these issues, please contact me at firstname.lastname@example.org or 654-7827.
Christy Weir is the mayor of Ventura.