Tuesday, June 15, 2010

Another Voice - The Mendocino County grand jury is right on

By John G Dickerson
Updated: 06/15/2010 08:18:31 AM PDT

The Mendocino county Grand Jury released a report on our county's retiree benefit debt on June 3. They are absolutely correct in their core implicit findings:

Something is terribly wrong in the financial management of our county's retiree benefits. Our county has shoved a huge and unfair unfunded retiree benefit debt onto our children. Most county and retirement officials have ignored all criticisms from many quarters for years. It appears laws may have been broken. And it's way past time for county officials to take these criticisms seriously and answer questions.

I take no position on what retiree benefits should be. I absolutely take the position that whatever they are, they should be properly funded and their true cost and debt should be reported to the public.

The finances of the county's retiree benefits can be explained to concerned citizens in fairly simple terms. But county and retirement officials have never done that.

Pensions or Public Services?

Our county today is having a financial wreck at the intersection of services and retiree benefit obligations. Services are being cut and jobs are being destroyed to pay retiree benefit debt. Retirees didn't cause this problem. The people responsible to manage our county's finances in the public's interest caused this problem.

Public employee pensions are protected by the California Constitution. However, how far would the voting public be willing to go in seeing public services destroyed because of the need to pay pensions earned in the past? At some point I believe the people would rebel - and at that point pensions would be in jeopardy. Constitutions can be changed.

This situation was entirely unnecessary and is a direct consequence of deeply flawed financial management - especially in our county.

Four Financial Duties

I say there are four fundamental financial duties of county officials: 1) Tell us the financial truth. 2) Manage our money competently and transparently. 3) Protect and build our county's financial strength. 4) Don't put unfair burdens on our kids.

All four have been spectacularly violated at a cost of hundreds of millions of dollars to the people of our county.

"Politicians think only of the next election. Statesmen, of the next generation." (An abolitionist preacher said that just after the Civil War.)

We've had a boat load of politicians. Where are our statesmen?

Mendocino County politicians promised more than they could deliver and shoved the part they couldn't deliver as far into the future as possible. We are now in that future.

Official Denial

There are some county officials who realize the depths of our problems. But most county and retirement officials say our problems are all caused by forces outside their control - the stock market, the economy, the state - anyone but themselves or their predecessors.

Before you can solve a problem, you have to first admit you have one. Then you need to understand what the problem really is.

There are many things that can be done. But we can't get there as long as county officials - including the Board of Supervisors - continue to deny what the problem really is. The problem is deeper than any policy fix - the fundamental problem is there isn't a commitment to live up to those four duties - and the public (including retirees and employees) has never held officials accountable.

Our main immediate problem is the refusal of county and retirement officials to admit the extent and nature of the problem. Until they cop to the truth, they can't really solve the problem.

And it's the public that must do our duty to force our elected officials to tell us the truth.

The longer that takes - the worse it gets.

John Dickerson, a Redwood Valley resident, has long reported on the county's Debt on his website www.YourPublicMoney.Com.


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