By Doug Oakley
Bay Area News Group East Bay
Rising retirement costs of city employees are threatening to suck the city dry at the expense of services for the people who live here, according to candidates running for the Berkeley City Council in District 8.
Councilman Gordon Wozniak, the incumbent, faces 27-year-old teacher Stewart Jones and interior designer Jacquelyn McCormick in the district that includes much of the Berkeley hills east of College Avenue and Piedmont Avenue.
All three candidates said the city needs to get a hold of its pension costs and force city workers to pay more into the fund. Other issues in the race include having a more transparent operation at city hall and public safety issues.
In 2000, the city was paying workers about $2 million a year in retirement benefits, Wozniak said. Now that number is $27 million a year and in 18 months it will rise to $40 million, Wozniak said.
Police and fire fighters can retire at age 50 after 30 years of service and get 90 percent of their salary in pensions, Wozniak said.
"Police and firemen are retiring at 55 and they're living until they are 85, so you have to pay them for 30 years and that's made a huge dent in our pension costs," Wozniak said.
Police and fire fighters pay 9 percent of their salary into the pension fund, but other city workers do not contribute.
As pension costs rise, residents get fewer city services for the taxes they pay, Wozniak said. He would like to see the tax burden shifted from residents who are tapped out on property taxes to businesses. Making it easier for businesses to open up shop in the city could help make that happen he said.
"More taxpayers are saying these are not good times like it was in the middle 2000s and in the 90s," Wozniak said. "They are feeling stressed and less likely to support new property taxes." On the crime front, Wozniak said he also would like to see the police department be more accountable to the City Council in a goal-oriented manner.
"The Council spends very little time discussing crime," Wozniak said. "We need to ask the police to come and tell us what's happening. We need them to come regularly, give us a plan to reduce crime and we need to monitor that. If it doesn't work, we change it or add new components." Challenger McCormick also said the city is in danger of being bankrupted by its employee salaries and pensions.
"The city is in dire financial trouble with regard to its pensions," McCormick said. "Why has the city not taken an active role in working on it? Let's talk about getting this stuff under control." She said city services and employee costs should be paid for through a partnership between "people who pay property taxes and those who pay the business taxes." McCormick said she also wants more open government so residents can see what the city is spending its money on.
"I managed huge budgets when I worked at Bank of America," McCormick said. "We need as a community to decide our priorities, not the city manager and not city staff who don't live here. Why can't we as a community make those decisions?" If she is elected, McCormick said she will organize neighborhoods and do outreach so everyone knows what's going on in the city.
"I will have at least quarterly town hall meetings," McCormick said.
"And I will have a web site for District 8 and people can hold me accountable." Jones said pension reform starts at the top "with the hiring of a new city manager."
"We need to focus on the top down approach, so we send a strong message to the unions," Jones said. "It needs to be fair, so when we ask them to restructure their pensions, it's across the board."
Jones said the city needs to get tough with UC Berkeley so that more buildings are not put up on the Hayward fault which scientists say is overdue for a large earthquake.
"We're putting development directly on top of and adjacent to the fault," Jones said. "We need an advocate who is going to work with the neighborhoods to find the right solution to land issues." Jones called for more openness in city government "so we can understand the budget.