Future Firefighters Beware!

Local government budgets need protection too.

California’s recent fires reminded citizens that robust fire and police staffing levels are critical for public safety, including the safety of the brave Californians willing to serve in those roles. Fortunately for our society, a good number of young people growing up today hope to become firefighters and police officers. But less fortunately for those young people and our society, some California officials are eroding the ability of future governments to hire enough police and fire personnel while also maintaining public spending on other services.

For example, this year Los Angeles is diverting 30 percent of its budget to debt service. That’s 30 percent less with which to pay police officers and firefighters and to provide street and sidewalk repairs, libraries, affordable housing and other services.

Bloomberg, October 27, 2017

Two-thirds of that 30 percent relates to unfunded pensions and other retirement debts, which are created when the true size of obligations and the true costs of meeting those liabilities are hidden by corrupt officials. Because retirement debts are growing, future LA budgets will have even less money with which to hire police and fire personnel and maintain other services.

Absent reform, young people will find fewer opportunities in California to serve as firefighters and police officers.

French economist Thomas Piketty describes debt as “devouring the future” for young people. In LA and many other local governments in California, young people who would like to serve as future firefighters and police officers will find fewer opportunities and smaller salary increases because of the growing need to service debts. Also at risk is the retirement security of local government police officers, firefighters and other personnel. That’s because local governments could declare bankruptcy and thereby discharge unsecured debts, including retirement debts. Eg, Stockton eliminated retiree health care benefits after it declared bankruptcy, yanking the rug out from under employees who had done nothing wrong. The wrong was committed by officials who didn’t set aside sufficient funding for the promises and didn’t level with employees that retirement promises were not secure. That’s the case today in many local governments in California. Local firefighters, police officers and other government employees should demand the truth from their elected and pension fund officials about just how secure — or insecure — are their retirement promises.

Citizens deserve robust public safety forces, young people deserve future public safety employment opportunities, and local government employees deserve the benefits they’ve earned. The road to all three destinations starts with ending corrupt management of California’s retirement obligations.

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