SAN DIEGO — As state and local governments across the country struggle with ballooning pension obligations, voters in two major California cities cast ballots Tuesday on sweeping measures to curb retirement benefits for government workers.
Ballot measures in San Diego and San Jose — the nation's eighth- and 10th-largest cities — are being closely watched well beyond California. The propositions are unusual because they not only target new hires but also current employees.
Supporters have a straightforward pitch: Pensions for city workers are unaffordable and more generous than many private companies offer, forcing libraries to slash hours and potholes to go unfilled.
“We believe people are tired of having services cut back because of big pensions,” said San Diego Mayor Jerry Sanders, a Republican who is being forced from office by term limits.
Shrinking tax revenues during the recession are also responsible for service cuts, but pensions are an easy target. San Diego's payments to the city's retirement fund soared from $43 million in 1999 to $231.2 million this year, equal to 20 percent of the city's general fund budget, which pays for day-to-day operations.
As the pension payments grew, San Diego's 1.3 million residents saw roads deteriorate and libraries and recreation centers cut hours. For a while, some fire stations had to share engines and trucks. The city has cut its workforce 14 percent to 10,100 employees since Sanders took office in 2005.
San Jose's pension payments jumped from $73 million in 2001 to $245 million this year, equal to 27 percent of its general fund budget. Voters there approved construction bonds at the beginning of the last decade, but four new libraries and a police station have never opened because the city cannot afford to operate them. The city of 960,000 cut its workforce 27 percent to 5,400 over the last 10 years.