Monday, January 12, 2009

Police/Fire Pension Sales Tax Initiative Promotion:

curiouser and curiouser

This police/firefighter pension sales tax issue and the way it is being presented to the public continues to get curiouser and curiouser.

One of the little tid bits of information that came out regarding a recent blow up on the part of Greene County Commissioner Dave Coonrod, as he berated Circuit Clerk Steve Helms before a County Court "en banc" meeting for sharing his personal opinion in a letter to the editor of the News-Leader, was that the News-Leader saw fit to identify Helms as the Circuit Clerk in signing his name to the letter. I posted about it here:

"Helms pointed out that he had not signed the letter as the Circuit Clerk but the News-Leader had added his position, internally."

As far as I know, the News-Leader never denied Helm's claim.

So, I find it interesting that today, The News-Leader published an "Our Voice" column written by Doug Pitt and identified him only as: "a former member of the Community Editorial Advisory Board," who lives in Springfield when, it was the News-Leader itself which, on December 30, 2008, identified Pitt as a member of a group organizing to campaign for passage of the 1-cent sales tax for the pension plan.

"Calling itself Citizens Keeping Our Commitment, the group filed organization papers with the Greene County clerk on Monday

Its 16 founding members include chairman Robert Spence, president of Evangel University; Norm Ridder, superintendent of Springfield Public Schools; Springfield businessman Doug Pitt; and former library director Annie Busch."

Other members, according to the News-Leader article are:

> Morey Mechlin, deputy treasurer
> Nancy Brown Dornan, Springfield developer
> Troy Compton, firefighter
> Herbert Dankert, Jarden Plastics
> James Dougherty, police officer
> Mike Evans, Springfield Police Officers Association president
> Tony Kelly, Springfield Fire Fighters Local 152 president
> Eric Latimer, firefighter
> Shawn Martin, firefighter
> Charlie O'Reilly, O'Reilly Auto Parts
> Tom Rankin, Sperry VanNess/Rankin Realtors
> Clif(f?) Smart, legal counsel, Missouri State University

I don't have any problem with any of these committee members electing to form a committee to "stump" for something they support but, I do find it rather odd that the newspaper would not identify the letter writer as a member of the committee they headlined previously as, "stumping for sales tax." Did they not feel it was important to note the writer was a member of an organization set up to "campaign to help pass a 1-cent sales tax in February?"

I haven't come to any firm conclusion on how I will, personally, vote on the police/fire pension sales tax so, I don't really have a dog in this hunt and, I recognize, Pitt has as much a right to an opinion as Helms does...though I do pass a bit of judgement in noting the News-Leader failed to properly identify him as a member of that committee.

If the campaign manager of a candidate running opposite candidate "X" for a seat in Congress had written a letter in support of his own candidate, "Y," and dismissed candidate "X's" concerns, would it be important to readers to know that the letter was written by the campaign manager of "Y?" I think so. I see no difference here.

Regarding Pitt's opinions, I have my own opinions. Pitt wrote:

"As emotions run deep, the beauty of any issue is the facts. Not rumor, not innuendo or supposition; but facts. There has been so much banter about the pension crisis that it has now bred misinformation from many angles, so I would like to take this opportunity for everyone to catch their breath and settle in on some facts."

Pitts then gave some facts. One of the facts was something I've always sort of wondered about but never asked. Pitts noted the city failed to make the full actuarial recommended contributions for the fiscal years 2005-2008. He wrote, and city officials have indicated, not making those contributions for those years underfunded the plan by $10 million. I have been wondering if that takes into account any investment returns which might have accumulated as a result of that $10 million the city failed to contribute. Like I said, I don't know, I'm just wondering and haven't asked.

It's a good thing to want to inform the public of the facts. In the end, the issue, in this case, is whether to support the police/fire pension sales tax initiative on February 3. The more information the public receives and the more they understand the better.

I don't fall in line with some of the thought that seems to be being promoted that it does no good or doesn't matter if the public understands how we got where we are today in the underfunded plan and I never have. Certainly, understanding the background won't solve the current problem but, the solution has to take into account the background or it can't be solved. So, it seems we go in circles. If the public doesn't fully understand the background, how can they be expected to fully understand an offered solution intended to fix the problems that got the pension fund in the underfunded state it is in today? The answer is: They can't, and if the public can't understand the problem or the solution then how can they understand the role of ongoing actions, including a sales tax, in solving the problem with the pension and ensuring it doesn't get into this same state at some future date?

Pitts tells you, the voter, in his column today:

"On Feb. 3, voters will consider a one-cent tax to fund the city's police/fire pension retirement system. The vote is not about benefits. Not about actuaries or returns. Not about blame. It is important that we not get bogged down in the periphery which has needed to be discussed, but now settle in on what we as citizens are being asked to vote on - which is, should this tax be approved to fund the deficit of the police/fire pension fund."

I would tell you, it IS important we see the entire issue and understand it fully, we don't have to "get bogged down in the periphery," which Pitts admits needed to be discussed, but wants you to move beyond.

No one can make voters take an interest in important issues in their communities and this is a very important issue effecting your community but, I wish citizens would take that interest to inform themselves about the issue and I wish they would so they can make a truly educated choice on February 3.

I am, personally, very disappointed in the direction the city has chosen to take to try to get voters on board to support the tax. Do city officials and our City Council owe it to the citizens to explain what the result could be if voters fail to pass the police/fire pension sales tax next month? Absolutely but, they also owe it to the citizens to explain they have more than one option in addressing the issue should the sales tax fail to pass. I don't feel city officials are adequately educating the voters about that.

Refer to this previous entry to understand the city is not forced to pay the full actuarial amount in the next fiscal year.

It isn't my intention to suggest the wisest choice is not to fund the pension plan by the full actuarial recommended amount next year. That might be the wisest decision. My point is that the city may choose, or choose not, to make the full actuarial recommended contribution next year while they examine other options, and there are so many different options I wouldn't even try to list them all. I just find it a bit disingenuous to pretend, or insinuate by omission, there are no other options if the sales tax initiative fails in February but to pay the full actuarial recommended amount and, in the words of City Manager Burris, "set the city back one or two decades." There needs to be more serious thought about making that full contribution if it can have such dire consequences as Burris outlined.

City Manager Burris listed as a principle used in developing budget recommendations in a memo that accompanied his presentation on January 6, 2009:

"Focus on Retaining Core Services: I have tried to minimize the impact on (a) core services and (b) those services the recent citizen's survey identified as most important to our citizens. For example, I considered a number of optional cuts to both police and fire services, but elected to forego those reductions at this time in favor of reassigning existing personnel to increase our number of officers "on the street" and to keep as many fire stations open as possible. I have tried not to submit the most sensitive core services for elimination. However, these recommendations assume we will keep the police and firefighter academies on hold until the City can afford to hire additional police officers and firefighters and has a stable, funded pension system in which to place the new hires."

Perhaps one of the options should be, if city officials are taking seriously the citizen survey, in which 98 percent responded "Keeping the crime rate low," was the most important of various issues regarding the planning of the City's future, making a bit less than the full actuarial recommended amount in order to take the police and fire academies off hold and end the hiring freeze in the police and fire departments. Perhaps, one of the options should be not removing neighborhood PAR officers and COP officers. Perhaps, the city should actually put core services first, instead of plundering the core service which the citizens who responded to the citizen survey ranked as the number one core city service the city offers, while they continue to try to resolve a very real problem with the police and firefighter pension plan. I'd like to see them not, inadvertently, create even worse problems for the future.

I think that is an option worth considering. I recognize I am not a member of a committee to promote passage of the police/fire pension plan sales tax, neither am I a member of a committee to oppose passage of the police/fire pension plan sales tax. I'm just a concerned citizen who has a bit of understanding about the background and the issue and think that in order to make wise decisions, the benefits of making the full actuarial recommended contribution, if the sales tax measure fails, by threatening to cut the most basic safety services in our city might need more examination.


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