Public Safety Issues Playing Central Role in San Jose Mayor's Race

Both candidates vying to replace two-term San Jose Mayor Chuck Reed, Santa Clara County Supervisor Dave Cortese and San Jose City Councilman Sam Liccardo, agree on the chief topic of Tuesday's election campaign.

"Public safety is by far the biggest issue in the race," Cortese said.

"Improving public safety," Liccardo said.

Both candidates are seeking ways to add sworn officers at the San Jose Police Department, which has about 1,020 officers, down from about 1,065 in 2012 and almost 400 fewer than in 2008, mainly due to retirements as the city was hit by the national recession and had to cut services and lay off some police and other employees.

The election could determine the future of the relationship between the City Council and the powerful San Jose Police Officers' Association, which has sparred with the Council in recent years over controlling the costs of police and fire pensions.

The SJPOA has endorsed Cortese, raised hundreds of thousands of dollars for him and has gone out of its way to denounce Liccardo and Mayor Reed over their pension reform efforts.

Liccardo said the election is a crossroads in the city's future on pension reform, with union bosses fearing that if he becomes mayor, the high pensions the union bargained for, which reached a maximum of 90 percent of an officer's salary in 2006, might be renegotiated.

"If San Jose succeeds in achieving that reform, there is a concern that six-figure pensions could be at risk as well," he said.

Cortese has said he would seek to end the fight with the POA by terminating the city's appeal of a judge's ruling last December against parts of pension modification Measure B, a city charter amendment passed by voters overwhelmingly in 2012 but was bitterly opposed by the union.

"You should negotiate pension reform rather than litigate it," Cortese said. "The way San Jose did it is they went to the ballot and put it into the city charter. You can't really bargain it anymore."

He said, "We all wanted pension reform," but because Measure B was placed into the city charter, the pension reform issue "has largely been taken out of the City Council's and the Mayor's hands."

Measure B was met with the approval of 69 percent of city voters in 2012 after the City Council voted 8-3, with Reed and Liccardo in favor, to place it on the ballot.

Led by Reed, supporters of the measure said the city was in dire need of containing pension costs. The city claims that 20 percent of its general fund is spent on employee pensions alone.

Liccardo, in his campaign book "Safer City, Smarter Government, A Plan For San Jose's Future," wrote that the city's debt from its pension accounts grew to $3 billion by 2012 and a deficit in the city's general fund "forced layoffs of police, pay cuts and hiring freezes" while other spending
"got crowded out to pay for pensions."

Measure B after passage gave the City Council the right to repeal or amend any previously-approved retirement system and require employees to contribute up to 16 percent a year of their wages toward the unfunded liability in the city's retirement fund.

But the POA sued in Santa Clara County Superior Court to challenge the legality of Measure B. The unions objected to the measure for permitting the city to go back on the pension benefit formulas city leaders had agreed to in previous labor contracts.

They also strongly objected to the measure's toughening of eligibility for disability retirement, requiring police and firefighters hurt on the job to first seek an alternative job with the city and receive benefits only if they cannot work in another position.

Judge Patricia Lucas in December 2013 ruled two key parts of the measure illegal, saying that employees have "vested rights" to pensions in signed contracts, which the city cannot amend by increasing contribution rates, and ruled the city cannot cut contracted cost of living increases.

Lucas' decision meant the city was obligated to pay pensions even if there was an unfunded liability.

However, the judge permitted the city to reduce employee pay to cover their retirement plans' unfunded liabilities and let stand most of Measure B's other provisions, such as restrictions on disability retirement and denying bonus checks to retirees.

According to Liccardo, the changes in Measure B have already saved the city about $50 million since it passed.

Cortese, a former San Jose City Council member who has two years left in his term on the county Board of Supervisors, said he wants to put a stop to the city's appeal, which has cost several million dollars in taxpayer money in legal fees.

He criticized the City Council for deciding against a ballot measure asking voters to consider increasing San Jose's general sales tax from 8.75 percent to 9 percent, which City Manager Edward Shikada said would bring in $34 million a year and 50 percent of it could go toward public
safety costs.

The council had until Aug. 8 to approve the measure for the Nov. 4 ballot, but "missed the boat" on a way to raise funds to pay for police services and now will have to wait until the November 2016 general election, Cortese said.

Liccardo, a councilmember since 2007, said if the City Council had requested voters to raise the sales tax, the money might have simply gone to subsidize employee benefit costs and not solve the long-term need for pension reform.

"Cortese wanted the general tax," Liccardo said. "I said if we are going to increase taxes, they should expire if the Council votes to increase benefits and imposes unfunded liabilities."

"Until we can get these retirement costs in control, we can't afford these rising costs," he said.
Liccardo said city leaders met repeatedly with negotiators for the POA and 10 other employee unions and bargained in good faith for nine months.Whoever is mayor is going to have to resume that next year, he said.

"The city actually retreated seven times from its position and we were still not able to reach an agreement," Liccardo said. "There's no secret we tried to negotiate."

Cortese said a priority for him as mayor would be adding 140 police officers and the city already has the funds to pay for them.

"You can hire 140 cops now and recruit them with what is in the budget now," he said. "Clearly we need to restore the police force."

Liccardo pointed to a plan he and Reed put together in 2013 to add 200 patrol officers within four years and found funding sources for $35 million of the $50 million it would cost.

In October 2013, he and Reed agreed on a plan to restore 11 percent of pay to officers and a one-time incentive payout to them, he said.

Liccardo has complained that some opponents have tried to mislead voters by implying that the drop of nearly 400 officers from the force since 2008 was due to Measure B, when in fact the force lost 323 officers before the measure passed.

Cortese is in favor of consolidating the San Jose city and Santa Clara County fire departments, which would improve response times to medical and fire emergencies and "eliminate a whole level of management and save millions at first," he said.

"I think that should be looked at very, very seriously," Cortese said, adding that the chiefs of both fire agencies support consolidation.

"The idea would be to pick up San Jose and put the (county's) 15 cities under one umbrella," Cortese said.

Liccardo said that consolidation was "an old idea that is always worth pursuing" but there were other ways to improve response time for emergencies.

One way would be removing a requirement in the city firefighters' union contract to have at least four firefighters in each fire truck or engine, whether for fires or medical emergencies like heart attacks, he said.

Of the emergency calls received by the city fire department, He 94 percent are for medical emergencies, so a crew of four is not needed for most calls.

"We're still responding with a 19th century model," Liccardo said.

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